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Space available at homeless parking lot in Encinitas

The Encinitas sign shines above South Coast Highway 101 near the historic La Paloma Theater.
The Encinitas sign above South Coast Highway 101 near the historic La Paloma Theater. It went up in 2000 to replicate the original sign taken down in 1937 to widen the road.
(Charlie Neuman)

Summer statistics show nightly occupancy rates running about 62 percent

A recently established overnight parking area for homeless people who are living in their vehicles is running slightly under two-thirds full each night, summer statistics indicate.

In June, the first month after the Encinitas City Council inked a year-long contract with Jewish Family Service to operate the lot, an average of 15 of the lot’s 25 parking spots were filled with vehicles on a nightly basis. That’s five more a night than what the program first reported in February when it began as a temporary pilot project, but plenty of empty spots still remain each night.

Located on a large agricultural property in the city’s mid-section, the new parking lot was extremely controversial before it opened and that conflict continues to simmer this summer, though both sides report no direct confrontations of late.

Leah Bush, senior director of family and community services for Jewish Family Service, said the new parking lot program already has helped some homeless people resolve their housing problems, though the lot isn’t yet operating at full capacity.

“It was an important service before coronavirus; it’s an even more important service now,” she said.

Crista Curtis, who handles publicity for the parking lot opponents’ group North County Citizens Coalition, said Friday, Aug. 7, that coalition members believe the new parking lot has done nothing to resolve the city’s substantial homeless problem and the project ought to be terminated. She said she knows first-hand that the Jewish Family Service project isn’t accomplishing its goals because she’s driven around Cardiff’s Glen Park late at night recently and “it was obvious people were sleeping in their vehicles” in that coastal area.

Her group filed a lawsuit against the city in March over the homeless parking lot project, but progress on the lawsuit appears to have been stalled by the global pandemic and the resulting public health restrictions on courthouse activity, Curtis said, adding that she has a telephone call scheduled next week with the group’s attorney, Karen R. Frostrom, to discuss the lawsuit.

Proponents stress that the homeless parking lot was never promoted as a way to resolve all of the complex issues related to homelessness. It doesn’t serve what are often a community’s most visible homeless people — the chronically homeless, vehicle-less people who live in improvised campsites and can have mental health or substance abuse issues.

The goal of the parking lot is to provide a safe space to sleep for newly homeless people who are temporarily living in their vehicles, the homeless population that often goes unnoticed, they add. If those people get assistance early on and get back into housing quickly, they can avoid falling into long-term homelessness, proponents argue.

The parking lot, which Jewish Family Service manages under a $1-a-year deal with the city of Encinitas, is located inside a large agricultural property owned by the Leichtag Foundation. Situated between Saxony Road and Quail Gardens Drive, the foundation’s agricultural property is gated and homeless parking lot users are not allowed to drive onto the foundation’s land without undergoing pre-screening at an off-site location, organizers have said. The site opens for business each night at 6 p.m., and the lot’s occupants need to leave by 7 a.m. the following morning.

Lot organizers aren’t sure what to predict in the way of parking lot usage in the coming months, given that this is the lot’s first year of operation and it’s happening amid a global pandemic, Bush said.

“This is unprecedented,” she said.

Since its start in February, the program has served 44 adults and nine children, Bush said. More than half of the adults — a total of 24 — have been over age 55. So far, 15 Encinitas residents have used the lot and 29 North County residents have done so.

“We continue to see a pretty high rate of positive exits,” Bush added, mentioning that 17 lot users have found housing.

This doesn’t mean that all of them are now living in newly rented places. In some cases, lot users reached out to relatives, reunified with family members and obtained housing in this fashion, she said.

They’ve had four “negative” exits, including people who said the lot’s hours of operation didn’t work for them, Bush said.

Jewish Family Service, which received a $256,000 grant from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program to fund the Encinitas project, also operates three, much-larger parking lots in the city of San Diego. Those programs have seen a “leveling off” of use in recent months after a surge earlier in the year, Bush said, adding that she’s not certain what may be the cause of this.

Area homeless advocates and social service providers say there might be multiple factors at play, everything from the temporary national moratorium on evictions to fears about catching the coronavirus.

Bob Kent, one of the founders of the Keys4Homes advocacy group in Encinitas, said new aid programs enacted at the start of the pandemic might be helping people keep a roof over their heads. He mentioned $250,000 in state funding the city recently received for homeless prevention and outreach efforts, among other items.

John Van Cleef, chief executive officer of the Community Resource Center in Encinitas, noted that summer is typically a slower period for homeless shelter usage because people explore other options during the warmer months, including using campgrounds. He added that he believes the eviction moratorium, which federal officials are currently considering extending, may be significantly reducing the number of people who are becoming homeless now.

And, he said, fear of contracting the virus may be a factor; the use of the lots could be reduced because people generally are afraid to congregate these days.

“We know that some of the people we serve have stayed away from communal settings,” he said.

Curtis, the opponents’ group member, thinks homeless people also may be avoiding the lot because they don’t want to comply with its restrictions, which include prescreening questions about whether they have a criminal history. She said Sheriff’s deputies need to direct people to use the lot and prevent people from sleeping in their vehicles elsewhere.

“There’s a disconnect,” she said.

For monthly data reports on Jewish Family Service’s homeless parking lot usage and information regarding homeless outreach efforts in Encinitas, visit: https://encinitasca.gov/Residents/Housing-Resources/Homeless-Resources/Homeless-Programs

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


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