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Last week, a forum at the Encinitas Library billed as a discussion of North County homeless issues quickly devolved into a rally against a recent decision in Encinitas to open a safe parking lot for homeless people.
About hour into it, one woman, from a crowd of hundreds, spoke in support of the idea.
“Don’t forget your humaneness in dealing with other people,” she said.
County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar quickly responded. Gaspar did not organize the event, but she emerged as its leader.
“No one can say that my lack of support for one solution is my lack of support for humanity and for the people that we’re serving,” she said. “I care about them deeply and that’s why I say we need to redefine passion as a society and genuinely love people.”
California’s homeless crisis has provoked many meetings like this but rarely are the fears so open as they were in this forum.
A group of about 50 people, mobilized by a change.org petition (which now has some 3,000 signatures), banded together to form the North County Citizens Coalition and oppose the safe parking lot. They put on the forum.
The project has been underway for months after the state gave Jewish Family Service a $256,000 California Homeless Emergency Assistance Program, or HEAP, grant to open a safe parking program lot in North County in June. Many homeless families still have cars but there are very few places to legally park them and sleep, and even fewer that are safe.
Jewish Family Service partnered with Leichtag Foundation, which owns the old Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas. They set out the basics of the deal where the city would lease the land for $1 and allow up to 25 homeless people to park with their vehicles. A final vote on the plan has been delayed until Jan. 22.
It has gotten tense.
Julie Thunder, a member of the group, spoke up often at the event, and said she and her counterparts just want Encinitas to stay the way it is.
“We do not want the HEAP grant, as it does not allow us to help our own,” Thunder said. “We do not want JFS, an out-of-town organization, running a homeless lot given their poor financial track record. We do not want a homeless parking lot in our residential neighborhood.”
As the forum settled into a rally, Thunder whipped up the audience asking them where they first heard of the proposal.
“Nextdoor,” one resident shouted, referring to the online social network where people interact with their neighbors.
“Nextdoor!” Thunder repeated. “Why didn’t we hear about it from our city? … They’re putting in a homeless lot and we got nothing.”
Thunder said there was no advance notice, no public notification and no community forums to address the lot. The crowd cheered in response.
Actually, the Encinitas City Council discussed the safe parking program at a November Council meeting, where many residents for and against the parking program shared their concerns and accolades. The City Council also had two closed session meetings about the program.
But a PowerPoint provided by the group made clear it isn’t just the process the city took that frustrated them.
The slide said the citizens of Encinitas have a litany or worries about the parking lot: It would create a magnet for homelessness. It would risk child safety. It would have no local accountability. It would misuse of taxpayer funds and, finally, it wasn’t compassionate.
Residents have complained about the location on Saxony Road because of its proximity to nearby neighborhoods and a YMCA. Many of the speakers at the forum also described concerns about drugs and alcohol on the property. One resident even called for the removal of the four Council members who approved the lot.
“I know all 50 [North County Citizens Coalition members] and they are just like you and me. They own a home. They have a family. They’re trying to get back and forth to soccer. They love their kids, they love their neighbor, they want Encinitas to be what Encinitas is and has been,” Thunder said at the event on Thursday.
David Alan, a homeless resident who lives on the streets in Encinitas, attended the meeting as well, and asked his fellow residents to consider the needs of homeless people. Alan doesn’t own a car, so he won’t be able to take advantage of the lot regardless.
“I don’t know the solution to this problem and I’ve lived here my whole life,” he said at the event. “I’m glad to see all of these people showing up and I just wanted to give a face to homeless people.”
After Alan finished making his comments, Gaspar called to him in front of attendees. “You see the community in this room, this community is ready to embrace you. When you’re ready to be done, if you’re sick and tired of being out there, we’re here for you,” she said.
Gaspar, who is running for re-election to District 3, called the lot “well intentioned, but misguided.”
Residents clapped, cheered and whistled as she spoke. They ate up Gaspar’s opposition.
Itica Milanes, a spokeswoman for Gaspar, wrote in an email that the North County Citizens Coalition invited Gaspar to the event. She said she had received several calls and was approached many times by people who live in Encinitas about the homeless parking lot.
“They told the supervisor they were angry that the City Council approved the idea without input from the community and they were worried about their safety,” Milanes wrote. “They said they wanted to be heard.”
But Gaspar acted like a host at the event. She made an introductory speech on a stage in front of attendees and had a booth in front of the entrance in the Encinitas library where it was held.
Neither Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear nor any of the four Council members who voted in favor of the Safe Parking Program in November attended the forum, nor did anyone from Jewish Family Service. Blakespear told VOSD in an email she was advised by the sheriff not to go to a different community meeting Tuesday about the safe parking lot for her own safety.
Milanes said Jim Farley from the Leichtag Foundation knew about the meeting and asked Gaspar if she wanted someone from the foundation to attend. Milanes said Gaspar said yes of course, and Farley said they would have someone there.
Charlene Siedle, executive vice president for the Leichtag Foundation, told VOSD she attended the event as a listener, but that neither representatives from Jewish Family Service nor Leichtag was invited to speak.
Proponents of the lot say the program will focus on getting residents into permanent housing.
The only Encinitas Council member in attendance was Councilman Tony Kranz, the lone “no” vote against the parking lot.
Kranz said he lived in his car at one point in Anchorage, Alaska, an experience he said informs his approach to homeless issues.
He said the city hasn’t had enough time to put together a program that works for the community, and that the process was rushed without much community involvement. He said any city program should focus on people already homeless in Encinitas, and avoid attempting to solve a regional issue.
“It was that a process has been flawed and what really we should be doing is looking at locations other than just the Leichtag Foundation’s parcel,” Kranz said. The audience clapped and whistled as Kranz stood on stage.
Gaspar said elected leaders are playing the short game and the services being provided to people experiencing homelessness “must stop being transactional and start being transformative.” Gaspar said Encinitas should not accept the HEAP grant.
“I fundamentally believe that housing will not end homelessness,” Gaspar said. “It is a community that will. That is why it is critical to have community engagement and community support for solutions the community will embrace and help get behind to end homelessness. Not every solution is right for every community, but that community must be part of the solution. Four walls and a roof, whether they’re on foundation or on wheels is not. The solution is simply moving an outdoor problem into an indoor one.”
Michael McConnell, a homeless advocate in San Diego who attended the meeting, said the forum was unlike anything he’s seen before. He said it’s unique that a foundation that owns property is willing to take a lot of grief from the community to host the lot.
“It was a pretty clear attack on the safe parking lot,” he said. “I’ve never seen homeless service providers and community providers like Leichtag attacked so viciously for no reason at all except to try to tear down idea of a project somehow attacking the people involved. It took people to a whole new low.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Itica Milanes’ name, and incorrectly referred to a booth connected with Supervisor Kristin Gaspar at the event as a campaign booth. It was manned by county staffer, according to Gaspar’s chief of staff.