ESCONDIDO — The city may soon have an ad hoc committee designed to address local homelessness with the City Council’s permission.
After hearing an update from staff regarding the city’s ongoing efforts to tackle homelessness at a Feb. 15 council meeting, Mayor Dane White requested the consideration of a homelessness ad hoc committee be added to a future council agenda.
“We will find a solution,” White said. “We will implement it through the City Council; we will do something moving forward. I’m tired of hearing these conversations and then no action happening.”
According to the mayor, Supervisor Jim Desmond is interested in funding potential solutions that North County cities like Escondido could create via such a committee.
“The funding is there; we just all need to cooperate,” White said.
City staff across several departments have spent thousands of hours annually addressing the homelessness situation in Escondido. The city also recently launched its website, escondido.org/homeless, demonstrating its ongoing efforts to address homelessness through current data.
Housing and Neighborhood Services manages $10.2 million in federal grant funding through homeless outreach and prevention services contracts. Nearly two-thirds of that amount goes to National Core, which plans to construct 25 studios for seniors 62 and older experiencing homelessness and 24 affordable units for households.
The second majority of the funds go to various contracts with Interfaith Community Services and other partners, including $1.3 million for the Haven House 49-bed emergency shelter, $1.7 million for homelessness prevention efforts and hundreds of thousands of dollars for other services, including street outreach and rapid re-housing options.
The Public Works department has dedicated nearly 2,900 employee hours to addressing issues related to homelessness, including repairs to damaged city property like broken fences and stolen electric wiring from city lights, debris removal, installing infrastructure to deter homelessness and outreach with other public entities like Caltrans about problem areas.
The police department has also been involved with approximately 11.5% of its homelessness-related calls over the last year. As part of its Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT), a handful of assigned police officers also work with a licensed mental health clinician to address high-risk homeless individuals who need more intense help.
The police have been identifying and prioritizing target areas throughout the city with the highest number of homeless-related calls. One particular success story for the department has been at the Motel 6 on Quince Street, where over the last year, the police experienced a 77% drop in calls from that area due to their ongoing efforts.
Police Chief Ed Varso would like more officers and PERT clinicians to be assigned to the team. The majority of the council agreed.
Not everyone was happy with the police department’s involvement in addressing homelessness. Several public comments accused the city and the police of caring more about the property than residents in need.
“It’s a joke to say that funding the police department to provide any kind of services to people in need is going to be effective because they’re sorely unqualified to do that,” said Juliana Musheyev. “They exist to uphold and protect the systems that cause the severe inequality at the root of homelessness.”
Others noted that over-policing and criminalizing homeless individuals are also counterproductive to helping them get back on their feet.
“Policing will not solve our current homeless crisis,” said Escondido resident Sean Pike.
The police chief noted that although the department wants to help people who need it, they must still uphold the law.
“Our goal is to help people that need help, and we have a lot of resources available in our city,” Varso said. “Our police officers are very familiar with the resources available to them and are working diligently to connect people with resources; however, at the end of the day, if people are unwilling to accept those resources for whatever reason that may be and they engage in criminal behavior, our police officers are going to intervene in that behavior and hold them accountable.”
Although resources are available in the city and beyond, Interfaith CEO Greg Anglea said many existing resources, including the organization’s own, are full, leaving many in the streets without much-needed help.
“Despite the positive elements that have been presented tonight, there is no shelter available for someone on the streets tonight,” Anglea said. “Our Haven House shelter, which we operate with your support, is full. If somebody wants a treatment program, our treatment program is full. If someone wants to detox, our detox program is full… we have a long way to go.”
White, who spent several years homeless, struggling with addiction between the ages of 16 and 21, noted how important it was for him to have resources like permanent supportive housing and treatment options.
Several other council members pointed out that while Escondido has been trying to chip away at homelessness in the region, neighboring cities are not as involved in the efforts and need to step up to the plate.