Encinitas to pursue safe, overnight parking area for homeless people

(Charlie Neuman)

Proposal involves using Leichtag Foundation land along Saxony Road


A proposal to create a “safe parking” lot for homeless people on privately owned land at little cost to the city is too good an opportunity to pass up, a majority of the Encinitas City Council decided Wednesday, Nov. 20.

The council agreed in a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Tony Kranz opposed, to direct city staffers to nail down more details about the proposal and put together a contract in time for the council’s final meeting of the year on Dec. 18.

Jewish Family Service, a regional nonprofit that operates three of these lots in San Diego, is proposing to put a safe parking area with space for 25 vehicles on land owned by Leichtag Foundation along Saxony Road near the Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA. The city would act as a conduit, leasing the site from the foundation for a $1 year and contracting with Jewish Family Service to manage the operation each night.

“This is something that to me seems like a gift,” Mayor Catherine Blakespear said, calling the proposal “generous and forward thinking on many, many levels.”

She said the rising cost of housing in California and the lack of low-cost rental units is creating a massive crisis and Encinitas needs to do its part to help people who are struggling. The problem is so broad that she knows someone with a professional degree -- an orthodontist -- who is living in an RV with his child and pregnant wife because he’s having trouble finding an affordable home, she said.

Kranz praised Blakespear’s passion for this issue and said he supported the idea of having a safe parking area in Encinitas for people who are temporarily living in their vehicles, but not on this site.

“Virtually everything she said I agree with, except one thing -- I really think there is a better location than the Leichtag Foundation,” he said.

He proposed putting together a contract with Jewish Family Service, while exploring other sites, suggesting the city’s public works yard, the city’s community center or a water district property on Santa Fe Drive as options. His motion failed to win a second from the other council members.

Councilwoman Jody Hubbard said she thought the Leichtag site was a fabulous location, while Councilman Joe Mosca said he could support it as long as Jewish Family Service agreed to various measures to protect neighboring homeowners. Councilwoman Kellie Shay Hinze said she initially “agonized” over supporting the proposal because the Leichtag land is zoned for agriculture, but ultimately decided it was the right location for the project, in part, because the YMCA is across the street.

Hubbard said she wasn’t at all troubled by the agricultural issue because the proposed site -- the southwest corner of the Leichtag property -- already is a paved parking area.

“They’re not growing anything in the parking lot -- it’s an empty parking lot,” she told her fellow council members.

Before the vote, the council heard from representatives for Jewish Family Service and the Leichtag Foundation as well as 49 general public speakers. Thirty-two of those speakers supported the proposal, while 17 opposed it.

Many of the supporters were regular volunteers for programs that help homeless people, including the community meal program Fill-A-Belly and the mobile shower program Showers of Blessings. During the weekly meals at Cottonwood Creek Park and the weekly shower program at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, they have learned first-hand that homeless people are “human beings like the rest of us” who are in crisis and need a helping hand up, they said.

“They are grateful, they are respectful, they are kind,” Showers of Blessings volunteer Susan Reyold said of the people who come to use the mobile shower facilities at the church and get a free haircut.

Many of the opponents live near the proposed Saxony Road site and they repeatedly said they weren’t opposed to programs that help the homeless, but this site near residential homes is a poor choice for a parking lot program and the city is rushing into the proposal without doing its “due diligence.”

Several of them said that the proponents were painting a rosy picture of the homeless without acknowledging that many homeless people have substance abuse and mental illness issues. The parking lot project, they said, will add traffic to what is already a very busy road, increase the existing criminal activity by homeless people in their neighborhoods, and reduce the value of their homes.

“There will be negative consequences ... they don’t deny that there will be and we will be a guinea pig for those negative consequences,” Encinitas resident Matt Wheeler, who lives next door to the Leichtag property, said.

During their presentation, two representatives for Jewish Family Service said the proposed parking lot would serve a different population than the sleeping-out-in-the-open, homeless people that are typically noticed on city streets. In order to use the lot, people will have to have a functioning vehicle that they’re sleeping in and often times these people are newly homeless, they said.

“In fact, many of our participants don’t think of themselves as homeless” because they have a car, Jewish Family Service Chief Executive Officer Michael Hopkins said.

At their three San Diego lots, about a third of the participants are senior citizens and more than 50 percent are people who have a job, he added. Jewish Family Services helps about 42 percent of them achieve a “positive outcome” when it comes to housing, either finding them a place to live or helping them reunite with relatives who are willing to share their housing, Hopkins said, adding that he wished the positive outcome figure was higher.

The organization has received grant funding for the Encinitas project, which would be the first safe parking lot in North County.

“We’ve spent a fair amount of time looking for the right location; we think it is the right location,” Hopkins said.

Carole Yellen, the organization’s director of strategic partnerships, said that in order to stay in the safe parking lot people will need to call the organization first and go through a screening process, including checking their names in a sex offender database.

“People cannot just drive onto the lot; it is not first come, first served,” she stressed.

Once they’ve enrolled, people will be able to drive onto the lot each night between 6 and 9 p.m. and they must leave the following morning by 7 a.m. They are required to sleep in their vehicles -- no tents are allowed, she added. Plans call for portable toilets on the site, but participants will go elsewhere for showers, possibly the YMCA, she said.

Yellen said the organization initially will agree to a series of extra conditions during what might be a six-month trial period, including providing all-night security guards, but said they haven’t found they need security guards at their other sites.

Charlene Seidle, executive vice president of the Leichtag Foundation, said her organization already is very security conscious and has both cameras and gates on their property. Because of recent attacks nationally on Jewish properties, the foundation unfortunately is forced to do this, she said.

— Barbara Henry is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune