Deeply divided crowd debated whether site was suitable
Encinitas will participate in a three-way agreement to create what’s known as a “safe parking lot” where people who are temporarily living in their vehicles can sleep overnight, the City Council decided Wednesday, Jan. 22.
The vote -- 4-1, with Councilman Tony Kranz opposed -- came after hours of testimony from slightly more than 100 public speakers, a figure that might be a record for Encinitas, the City Clerk’s office reported well after midnight when the meeting came to an end.
Plans call for the proposed parking lot to be located in the center of a 67-acre agricultural property owned by the Leichtag Foundation, and bordered on the west by Saxony Road and on the east by Quail Gardens Drive. In its vote Wednesday, the council approved a $1-per-year lease agreement with the foundation for the use of the land.
The council also approved an agreement with the nonprofit Jewish Family Service agency to manage the parking lot. The city of San Diego operates three safe parking lots that are run by Jewish Family Service. The nonprofit Dreams for Change operates two other lots in San Diego.
The Encinitas lot will have space for up to 25 vehicles, the site will open each night at 6 p.m., and the occupants will need to leave by 7 a.m. each morning. JFS, which has three similar lots in San Diego, has received a $256,000 grant from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program to fund the project. They will be screening all the potential lot occupants for various things, including criminal history, in other locations before they are allowed to come to the site, agency representatives said.
“I think this location is really quite perfect,” Mayor Catherine Blakespear said as she described what she liked about the proposed site, particularly its secluded location within the Leichtag property.
Councilman Joe Mosca said his initial concerns months ago about neighborhood safety issues have been resolved to his satisfaction, so he was voting in favor. Councilwoman Jody Hubbard said that the participating organizations were of such a high caliber that if they couldn’t make this project a success, “nobody can.”
Councilwoman Kellie Shay Hinze, who represents the District 2 area which includes the Leichtag property, said she had struggled with her decision, but ultimately was voting yes.
“I do believe we could have gotten to this point with less turmoil,” Hinze said, adding that she’s learned a lot from this process.
Kranz agreed with her assessment, saying the city should have done more initially to win over residents to the general idea of having a safe parking lot somewhere in town. He said the council now should wait to vote on this proposed site until there is more public support for it.
“The consensus of the governed is a critical part of what we do here,” he said, saying it “breaks his heart” to see how the issue has divided the community and adding, “We’re a long ways from the consent of the governed.”
About 53 percent of the people who spoke to the council supported the proposal, a handful didn’t appear to take a position and the remainder opposed it. Audience members displayed a mix of mass-produced signs and stickers to advertise their positions. Opponents had red, clip-on “no sleeping in cars” tags and day-glow green “Stop the lot” stickers, while proponents carried small, house-shaped signs stating, “Vote yes,” or signs with heart symbols declaring, “Let’s help our neighbors.”
Proponents included people who work for community nonprofits, volunteers for area church programs that assist the needy, and several people who said they were currently homeless. MiraCosta College and the Encinitas Union School District also have endorsed the proposal.
“This is a needed community resource for our student population,” Nick Mortaloni, MiraCosta’s interim dean of student life and judicial affairs, told the council as he described how the loss of a job or the death of a relative could suddenly send a student into homelessness.
Opponents included many people who live in the Encinitas Ranch communities near the Leichtag Foundation property, as well as people who have been active in other city issues, and a scattering of residents from other parts of town who thought the proposal had been very poorly handled by the city and the grant money could be better spent. Many of them said the council’s decision Wednesday would be the deciding factor in which candidates they voted for in November.
Cardiff resident Julie Thunder used the opportunity to announce she was running for mayor, saying the parking lot proposal was just one more “big city” project that the city’s current mayor was pushing upon the city’s residents.
San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, who lives in the Encinitas Ranch area and hosted a forum on the issue earlier this month, said Encinitas needs to acknowledge that its “homeless crisis” actually is a drug and alcohol “addiction crisis.” Encinitas, like the nation as a whole, needs to take a different approach to handling poverty issues than it has for decades, she said as fellow opponents cheered and clapped.
The split in the audience was evident when the next speaker approached the podium and proponents gave her their support. The woman said she was a victim of domestic violence, and not a drug or alcohol addict.
“Never in a million years did I ever expect to become homeless, but I did,” she said after describing how she had been beaten and strangled by a partner.
The city’s mayor repeatedly directed audience members not to clap or jeer between or during speakers’ comments, but instead to wave their hands in the air if they supported the speakers. That’s a system she’s often used in the past during debates on controversial topics. Most of the time, the audience complied Wednesday. Exceptions typically occurred when proponents charged that opponents weren’t compassionate people and when opponents declared that proponents couldn’t really be Encinitas residents and shouldn’t be allowed to speak.
Opponents responded to proponents’ claims by listing social service organizations they support, and saying that just because they think the proposed site is a poor location and the project’s approval was rushed doesn’t make them elitist, uncaring people.
Proponents responded to opponents’ claims of lack of city residency by detailing how long they had lived in town, with many of them mentioning that they had called Encinitas home for a decade or more. Tom Cozens said he likely beat everyone in the room -- his family settled in Encinitas in the 1880s.
Just before the meeting broke up, Blakespear and Hinze mentioned that the night actually wasn’t over for either of them. At 3:30 a.m. they would be reporting for duty as volunteers for the regional “Point in Time” count of homeless people. The annual, one-night count aims to create statistics on how many people are living out-of-doors or sleeping in their cars in San Diego County.
Several hours later, Blakespear reported via text that she counted 10 homeless people in the city’s downtown, including six who were living in their vehicles.
“At least two in cars seemed to be strong candidates for our safe parking program,” she wrote. “One was a woman with a full-time job in sales who has an MBA and said she’s about a week away from having first and last month’s rent saved up, enabling her to get back into housing. Nobody in her life knows that she is living in her car.”
— Barbara Henry is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune