Encinitas council OKs homeless lot agreement amid heavy criticism

Proximity to Oak Crest Middle School among complaints

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Encinitas City Hall. (NCC file photo)

Roman S. Koenig

The Encinitas City Council approved a fresh agreement for the operation of a Safe Parking Program for the homeless on Oct. 13, moving it from Leichtag Foundation property on Saxony Road to a lot at the Community and Senior Center near Oak Crest Middle School.

The topic was the first of two significant community issues the council dealt with Wednesday night during its nearly six-hour meeting, the second being the hearing of appeals regarding a mega-apartment complex planned for the semi-rural community of Olivenhain.

“Homelessness and housing, I think, are the two issues that divide our community most deeply and in the most heartfelt way,” Mayor Catherine Blakespear noted during the meeting.

The Jewish Family Service Safe Parking Program location’s proximity to the middle school drew residents’ criticism in recent weeks and opposition from the San Dieguito Union High School District Board of Trustees, which approved a resolution Sept. 27 opposing the program’s placement so close to the district’s Oak Crest campus. The location is also near the private Saint John School.

Those concerns were on display during public comments ahead of the City Council’s vote. The process for reaching the 4-1 decision put council members at odds with each other as well, leading Councilman Tony Kranz to vote no.

Homelessness and housing, I think, are the two issues that divide our community most deeply and in the most heartfelt way.”

— Catherine Blakespear, Encinitas mayor

In justifying the continuation of the program and its movement to the Encinitas Community and Senior Center, which is city property at Oakcrest Park, Blakespear cited California’s overall struggle with an increasing homeless population, which is affecting communities on a local level across the state.

The Encinitas lot accommodates 25 overnight spaces for households living in their cars. Supporters said the lot allows for those who are newly homeless or teetering on that edge to have a place to stay overnight while taking advantage of Jewish Family Service programs to rebuild their lives.

“When I think about my role as the mayor of the city of Encinitas, I do think about what can I do, what is possible,” she said. “Because this work, this public policy work, is the art of the possible. And this is something that we can do to help some people.”

Blakespear and City Manager Pamela Antil, who called the move a “courageous recommendation,” said the Safe Parking Program’s new location at the community center is compatible with the programs and mission there. As an example, Blakespear cited the free lunch program for senior citizens available at the community center — how those who are struggling get meals there — and the number of homeless senior citizens who are part of the Safe Parking Program.

Bob Kent, an Encinitas resident and founding member of the nonprofit Keys for Homes, cited similar reasons for the program’s relocation.

“Now more than ever, having a safe, reliable and dignified place to sleep at night is critically important for those individuals and families who are unfortunately living in their vehicles,” Kent told the council during public comments. “The safe parking program is the last rung of homelessness prevention.”

However, Kent also said he agreed with a speaker who listed issues that should be addressed if the lot was moved to the community center, such as clear signage and management of a trail that students often use to get to school.

Community and council member opposition

Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz said he supported much of his colleagues’ reasons for keeping the Jewish Family Service Safe Parking Program in the community, and he is proud of the city’s Homeless Action Plan, but he took issue with what he saw as a lack of transparency in the decision process.

What you left out of what you were saying is that the process that we undertook was flawed.”

— Tony Kranz, Encinitas deputy mayor

“Well I have to say that almost everything you said I totally agree with,” Kranz told Blakespear during the meeting. “What you left out of what you were saying is that the process that we undertook was flawed. It lacked transparency. You did not engage the school district or Saint John School or any of the neighbors directly. We posted a notice, we posted the agenda, and that was it.”

The apparent lack of transparency was also among the frustrations cited by residents. But it was the program’s proximity to Oak Crest Middle School and Saint John that appeared to draw the strongest reactions.

“I am a huge supporter of the program; I think it’s wonderful. And I see a need for it,” resident Becky Stuempfig said during public comments. “I’m very concerned about the proposed relocation at the community and senior center.”

Stuempfig said she has two children, one of whom is an Oak Crest seventh-grader.

“I’m not worried about the residents at the safe lot. I’m truly not,” she continued. “I’m worried about the uncontrolled factor,” adding that she was concerned about people seeking help at the parking program but going to the middle school for information or other assistance instead, something she said has already occurred.

Stuempfig said she would feel more comfortable with the lot’s new location if four items were addressed:

Increased security during school hours, paid by the city and/or Jewish Family Service;

The installation of a gate so there is an ability to open and close the lot;

The closure of a nearby trail when the lot is open for children’s safety and lot users’ privacy;

Signage with a phone number to call if residents see something suspicious happening so it can be reported.

Keys for Homes’ Bob Kent said he agreed that such ideas should be explored.

Other residents questioned why alternative sites were not considered, such as the former Pacific View school site in downtown Encinitas or MiraCosta College along Manchester Avenue in Cardiff.

Resident Matthew Wheeler wondered why the City Council had not explored the building of a formal homeless shelter.

“A place that people can actually sleep with a bed and a roof as opposed to getting happy about somebody using someone else’s money and someone else’s resources to let people sleep in cars at night. I don’t think that’s compassion. I don’t think that’s dignified,” Wheeler said.

Crime and back yards

The issue of “not in my back yard,” often referred to as NIMBY, popped up during the meeting’s discourse. Antil, the city manager, observed that residents support the program as long as it’s not near them.

“I’m not here to demonize the homeless. Being homeless is not a crime. But some behaviors associated with homelessness adversely affect the safety and security of residents,” past mayoral candidate Julie Thunder told the council, saying that in the 18 months since the lot was introduced, the council has refused to acknowledge an increase in crime since its placement.

I’m not saying that the clients sleeping in the lot are criminals. I don’t really know. But neither do you.”

— Julie Thunder, past Encinitas mayoral candidate

“I’m not saying that the clients sleeping in the lot are criminals. I don’t really know. But neither do you,” Thunder continued. “But when you invited the lot here, the message was sent — Encinitas has resources for the homeless, and a free place to park.”

Antil stated during the meeting that threats and disturbances were coming from anti-program activists, not the homeless, and that such problems are what led to the parking lot being moved off Leichtag Foundation property.

“Leichtag was very kind to extend their agreement and allow us to remain, have the program remain, but they could no longer support it because of the threats and the disturbances that were caused by not the people in the program but people who were trying to ensure that it would not stay at Leichtag,” Antil said ahead of the City Council’s vote. “It’s really a shame because it was a very, very good spot, but unfortunately, as had been mentioned by several speakers and by some of you, everyone says that they support safe parking, but they don’t want it in their neighborhood.”

A resident who spoke at the San Dieguito school district board meeting Sept. 27 said something similar.

“The fear is not warranted by any fact because, in actuality, there’s been no issues or criminal activity of the current safe parking lot,” said Jody White, who has three children in the district. “Embarrassingly, the only incident that did occur was trespassing by a housed individual who opposed it.”

In the end, Deputy Mayor Kranz asked that the council be more clear when it approaches future decisions about the parking lot.

“But again, with the pledge from Leichtag to continue to host, we decided last meeting to move forward and execute this agreement without really engaging the community in a beneficial way,” Kranz said. “What conversation will we have before this agreement is extended again? And will we engage the community in a more robust way before we extend this agreement?”


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(Story updated 10/15/2021 at 3:45 p.m.)

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