Diane, a homeless resident, parked at Jewish Family Service’s Safe Parking in San Diego in January. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Diane, a homeless resident, parked at Jewish Family Service’s Safe Parking in San Diego in January. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Encinitas is pressing ahead with a highly contested safe parking program for homeless residents. The City Council voted unanimously to extend the city’s contract with the nonprofit Jewish Family Service, citing a potential increase in homelessness due to the coronavirus pandemic and after police found no evidence that program was increasing crime, as opponents predicted it would.

At a public meeting on May 20, Capt. Herb Taft, who leads the Sheriff’s Department’s North Coastal Station, said he concluded with “absolute confidence” that safe parking had zero impact on calls for service or crime in the area. Taft said deputies haven’t had any issues with the homeless who are taking part in the safe parking program. Instead, he suggested people in nearby communities are the real problem.

“There are individuals for whatever reason that have called in crimes that were unfounded,” he said. “There are individuals that have trespassed on the property. There are individuals who for some reason I feel are trying to antagonize the group there and so that’s where we’ve had the issues; it’s not with the people who are using the service.”

The Encinitas City Council first approved the safe parking program, which sits on property owned by the Leichtag Foundation, in January on the condition it would re-evaluate the program in four months. Opponents of the program aired numerous concerns with the plan. They said it would pose a risk to nearby communities, attract more homeless people into their beach town and wasn’t the right solution to solving homelessness. At the same time, proponents said the program would connect people living in their cars with needed services and noted that the program was necessary because there was a lack of affordable housing in Encinitas.

City Council members have acknowledged similar sentiments from community members throughout the pandemic as well as a concern that the number of people taking advantage of the program was lower than anticipated. Jennifer Gates, a principal planner in Encinitas, said the program has serviced 39 individuals so far and 14 of them were Encinitas residents.

Lea Bush, a senior director of family and community services at Jewish Family Service, said when the program started in early February, it experienced a ramp-up period and then in March it hit full enrollment. As the state began to shelter in place to deter the spread of the novel coronavirus, she said, a group of people exited the program — some were housed or went into a temporary hotel voucher program through the nonprofit Community Resource Center.

“It allowed for us to have people in a safe place when we didn’t quite know what was going to happen with the global pandemic,” she said. “And we’re grateful for that.”

But the nonprofit continued to reserve some of those spaces for people in hotels, which led to the relatively low count in April.

Michael Hopkins, CEO of Jewish Family Service, said the average number of participants who sleep at the lot each night is about 15, but he expects that to increase. He said the lot right now has room for another 10 vehicles and the nonprofit plans to book more cars to make better use of the space.

Hopkins said the program has been valuable during the pandemic because it allows individuals living in their cars to get connected to the world and to get food. “We know when folks become homeless, their car is the first step in the continuum of falling,” he said. “The county eventually will end up with more homeless people. People still owe money for rent.  We’re certainly expecting an increase.”

City Councilman Tony Kranz, who cast the sole vote against the parking lot in January, said while he had reservations and voted against it back in January, “to say things have changed is quite an understatement.”

“We’re now in the midst of a pandemic and public health crisis and such, and so the continuation of the program is a really important way to try and make life a little better for the people that find themselves in this terrible situation where they have no shelter, but they do have a car,” he said.

He said he previously voted against the program because he was worried about a lawsuit and wanted the City Council to work with the region to figure out how it was going to address homelessness. (A group calling itself the North County Citizens Coalition did file a lawsuit in early March against the city following the approval of the lot.) But the initial success of the program and the lack of crime showed him otherwise, he said.

He left open the possibility that if crime did increase as a result of the lot, he would revoke his support.

“Encinitas has always had homeless issues and whether they’re worse now it could be related to the pandemic and the 28 percent unemployment that we’re seeing,” Kranz said. “So again, I think it’s important to emphasize to everyone that spoke tonight that we are aware and it is going to be the focus of our attention here in the months ahead.”

What We’re Working On

  • Immigrants, advocates and school officials in rural North County told Maya Srikrishnan they’re troubled by an apparent increase in immigration checkpoints during the pandemic. Immigrants say they’re too scared to leave home to access food, medical care and school resources when the checkpoints are active. Federal officials declined to say whether they’ve ramped up enforcement during the pandemic.
  • Thousands of homeless people throughout the county remain outside during the pandemic. Lisa Halverstadt and I reported on cities’ sluggish efforts to provide new shelter options in cities outside of San Diego — from Oceanside in the north to Chula Vista in the south — leaving many homeless individuals confused and scared.
  • School leaders like Cardiff School District Superintendent Jill Vinson are grappling with pressure from elected leaders like Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear and others who are pushing for school to return in the fall while balancing county public health mandates. Blakespear told me the San Diego County Office of Education’s proposed hybrid-learning model for next school year is a “lose-lose” situation. In a newsletter, she said that’s because “many working parents will need their kids to be in daycare on the days they can’t attend schools. Therefore, both education and public health lose, as those kids aren’t in an optimal learning environment and they are exposed to more groups of people. The equity concerns for students from lower socio-economic environments, without access to technology or all-day parental oversight, are real.”
  • Prior to covering North County, I reported on a years-long investigation into sexual misconduct in San Diego’s public schools with Voice of San Diego reporter Ashly McGlone. At a VOSD online town hall event on May 13, McGlone and I talked to school and law enforcement officials and others who discussed safeguards being put in place to protect students from online predators – and what still needs to be done — while they’re learning from home.

In Other News

  • While making an argument for easing stay-at-home orders, San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond told a podcast host that there had been only six “pure” coronavirus deaths out of roughly 190 in San Diego County at the time. He said those additional deaths should be somewhat discounted because patients had underlying health conditions. Following criticism from San Diego County Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten and Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, Desmond defended his statement on KUSI. (Union-Tribune)
  • San Dieguito Union High School District will offer students a choice of receiving letter grades or working toward a letter grade after outraged parents argued that depriving their high-schoolers of letter grades might harm their children’s chances of getting into college. (Union-Tribune)
  • The Del Mar fair board proposed a plan to temporarily shelter hundreds of local homeless veterans and families in 200 modular units at an equestrian facility near the fairgrounds in a one-year pilot program. (Union-Tribune)
  • The SANDAG board of directors voted to allow the Buena Vista Lagoon in Carlsbad to connect directly with ocean waters to flush out sediment on May 22 after Carlsbad City Council voted to support the “modified saltwater” approach to restoring the lagoon. Meanwhile, the Carlsbad City Council voted on May 12 to keep its vacant City Council seat open until the November election. (KPBS, Union-Tribune)
  • The San Marcos City Council voted to extend its eviction ban through June. (Union-Tribune)
  • And finally, in the pandemic pick-me-up we all needed: San Diego’s Voices of Our City Choir performed and received a “Golden Buzzer” on this week’s episode of “America’s Got Talent.” (NBC 7)

Kayla Jiminez was a staff writer for Voice of San Diego. She covered about communities, politics and regional issues in North County as well as school...

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