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Encinitas grants 3-year extension to overnight parking lot for homeless people

The parking lot at the Encinitas Community and Senior Center.
(Karen Billing)

‘It came at a time when we really needed it,’ council member says

A controversial overnight parking program for people who are living in their vehicles while they look for permanent housing has become such a success story that it’s easy to grant it a three-year contract extension, Encinitas City Council members said Wednesday, June 15.

“I see this as just a complete benefit to our city. It came at a time when we really needed it during the pandemic,” Councilmember Joe Mosca said, later adding, “This program has not faded in necessity — it has only increased in need” given the recent soaring cost of food and gasoline.

Councilmember Joy Lyndes noted that she initially opposed the plans to relocate the program to the city’s Community & Senior Center last year because she thought the new, more visible site wouldn’t be a “sanctuary” for its users, but said she’s since changed her mind.

“My concerns ended up being unfounded,” she said.

Funded by state grant money and run by the nonprofit Jewish Family Service organization, the Safe Parking Lot program offers people who are temporarily living in their vehicles a quiet place to park and sleep overnight while they receive help finding replacement housing. It seeks to help what organizers often describe as a community’s “invisible homeless population” — people who have become recently homeless and are living in their vehicles for what they hope is a short time. The goal is to give them a helping hand and prevent their situation from becoming permanent.

The Encinitas program, which is one of several that JFS operates in San Diego County, first opened for business in early 2020 just as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread worldwide. Initially, the Encinitas program was housed within the large, fenced-off Leichtag Foundation property between Saxony Road and Quail Gardens Drive. Leichtag’s site was seen as a temporary location, and late last year JFS reached a $1-year agreement with the city to lease the lower level of the city’s community center parking lot. The program relocated to its new location in January.

Both locations were controversial initially, particularly the second location. The community center parking lot is near many youth-serving facilities, including Oakcrest Middle School and several preschools, and many parents said the children would be at risk and the city should select some place else for the overnight parking lot.

However, there have been no issues since the lot relocated, Councilmember Tony Kranz said, calling the program “proven to be successful” and mentioning that data included in a new city staff report confirms this.

The staff report notes that city employees have been working with the county Sheriff’s Department, which provides the city’s policing services, to track crime statistics.

“Staff has not been informed of any concerns related to the users or the operation of the safe parking program,” the report states.

From its opening in February 2020 through April of this year, the program has served 141 adults and 13 children, JFS records indicate. Thirty-eight of them were Encinitas residents and 74 were from the North County region.

For about 30 percent of these people, JFS has been able to find permanent housing, and for about 24 percent it has helped them reunify with family members and obtain housing in this fashion, the report states.

The new lease agreement will allow the program to remain at its community center location until June 30, 2025.

During public comment on the proposed lease agreement Wednesday night, June 15, the council heard from five speakers and all but one of them supported the lease agreement.

The lone opponent, Steve Gerken, asked the council to refer the proposal back to city staff for more review. Among other things, he said, the program’s current grant funding is about to run out and JFS hasn’t obtained a new grant.

JFS’s chief of staff, Chris Olsen, confirmed this, but stressed that JFS has a grant application under review with the state now.

“We have every indication to believe that funding will continue,” he said, adding that even if JFS is unexpectedly turned down for its state grant, it will not seek city money to run the program.


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