Homeless parking lot program wins one-year contract extension

(Charlie Neuman)

Encinitas council approves proposal, saying program provides a critical service given during pandemic


The Encinitas City Council unanimously approved a full-year contract for what has been a controversial, overnight parking lot program for homeless people who are living in their cars.

Wednesday’s decision will allow Jewish Family Service to continue operating its 25-spot parking lot on the Leichtag Foundation property on Saxony Road under a $1-year management deal with the city. The organization’s first four-month contract was set to expire at the end of this month, and the nonprofit was planning to seek three four-month contract renewals in the coming months.

For several hours before the council’s vote, city employees read aloud more than 100 emails that people sent in as public comments on the item. The overwhelming majority of those emails, about 78 percent, came from people who passionately supported the homeless parking lot program. They said the council’s initial decision in late January to authorize the lot’s opening couldn’t have come at a more fortuitous time, given the recent economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Proponents ranged from area pastors and social service workers to the president of the local League of Women Voters and two former city councilwomen.

Meanwhile, opponents mentioned in their emails that the lot wasn’t really used all that much in its first few months of operation, and said the news of its opening made the city a “magnet” for drug-addicted, mentally ill homeless people who live in the bushes and don’t have cars, but believe the city is becoming a very homeless-friendly place. Opponents included some people who live near the new homeless parking lot, as well as a woman who’s running for mayor in November and a woman who’s running for a City Council seat.

The number of emails submitted for Wednesday’s meeting was about the same as the number of people who spoke out on the issue at the January council meeting, back before the council started conducting its meetings online and limiting public comment to e-mails rather than in-person speakers. What changed was the increase in support for the proposal. At the January meeting, about 53 percent of the people who spoke to the council supported the proposal, a handful didn’t appear take a position and the remainder opposed it.

Councilman Tony Kranz, who voted against the homeless parking lot proposal in January, made Wednesday night’s motion to approve the one-year contract, rather than the originally planned, first four-month contract renewal.

“To say things have changed is quite an understatement,” Kranz said, adding that the homeless parking lot, which aims to help newly homeless people who are temporally living in their cars find housing, is one way the city can “try to make life a little better.”

Councilman Joe Mosca said he had no problem supporting a full-year renewal, saying the city’s experience with the program in its first four months of operation proves that the council initially made the right decision months ago.

“This is clearly something that is working, it is clearly sheltering people on our streets,” he said, later adding, “It’s everything we said it was going to be.”

Mosca said he was particularly heartened by the comments provided that night by Sheriff’s Department Capt. Herb Taft, who leads the department’s North Coastal Station. While there have been reports of more criminal activity in the region near the parking lot, an extensive review by the department’s analysts showed that the parking lot had “zero impact” on the crime statistics, Taft said.

In fact, he added, it’s the lot opponents who have been causing problems by trespassing and trying to antagonize the lot operators and users.

“That’s where we’ve had the issues; it’s not with the people using the service,” he said.

JFS, which has three similar lots in San Diego, received a $256,000 grant from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program to fund the Encinitas project. The lot opened for business in early February, and initially reported having 10 clients in its first five days of operation.

Just as the usage started to grow, the coronavirus pandemic began upending day-to-day life, said Lea Bush, the senior director of family and community services for Jewish Family Service.

“We are definitely operating in a different environment than we had previously,” she told the council as she described how they are trying to make certain the lot users have food, water and medical services during the county’s stay-at-home order, which was enacted to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The four-month report that JFS submitted to the city in advance of Wednesday’s meeting indicates the lot served 39 people, 36 adults and three children, during its first few months of operation. Fourteen of these people were Encinitas residents. Twenty-two were over age 55, and two were veterans. Twenty-four said they had been homeless for less than a year.

Eleven people had “positive” outcomes, meaning they were able to obtain housing, the report states.

“The negative exits include individuals that left the program on their own accord or other reasons, including an inoperable car that could not be fixed,” the report states.

People who do not have a functioning vehicle cannot use the lot.

In other action Wednesday night, May 20, the council agreed:

To reduce speed limits along the southern portion of Coast Highway 101 to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety. The speed limit will be lowered from 45 mph to 40 mph from K Street to Chesterfield Drive, and from 45 mph to 35 mph from Chesterfield Drive to the Solana Beach city limits.

To appoint Jennifer Campbell, the city’s parks, recreation and cultural arts director, as interim city manager while the city seeks a permanent replacement for City Manager Karen Brust, who is retiring in mid-June after 35 years in government service.

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