VISTA — The City of Vista is continuing to expand its cleanups of homeless encampments into 2022, even as city leaders and homeless advocates say that a more systemic approach is needed to combat the issue.
For the past several months, city officials, in partnership with Caltrans, have been removing encampments from locations all across the city, including on Emerald Drive, Sycamore Avenue, Vista Village Drive, the Buena Vista Trail, and from on and off-ramps as well as underpasses along state Route 78, according to city public information officer Andrea McCullough.
The sweeps conducted by the city involve the removal of vast amounts of trash, debris, and unlawful shelters such as tents from state, city and private property. Unhoused persons located at these encampments are notified at least 72 hours in advance that the location is set to be cleared, according to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office, which assists in enforcing cleanup efforts.
All of the homeless who are asked to leave are offered temporary housing by city social workers at either the La Posada De Guadalupe shelter in Carlsbad or the Interfaith Community Services shelter in Escondido, and are also offered a variety of other transitory services including food, medicine, and transportation.
In September, the city’s Housing Program Manager reported that 78 different encampments across the city had been cleared in the previous six months, with hundreds of encampment residents having been offered housing and other services. More than 30 tons of trash had also been disposed of during the cleanups, the report added.
Vista City Councilman John Franklin said that concerns over the environmental impacts of the encampments, public safety issues, and the quality of life of the homeless themselves have necessitated the cleanup efforts.
“I’ve received more complaints from constituents on this issue in my seven years on the city council than on any other issue,” Franklin said. “It’s clear that these encampments have been a major interruption of public safety…there’s crime being committed associated with these places, and it’s had a major impact on quality of life.”
The councilman added that he’s been pushing for even more sweeps in the city in recent months.
“My present position is that we should be doing nonstop cleanup efforts, Franklin said. “The economic costs to our city resulting from [encampments] have been enormous…it’s time to be proactive and prevent more encampments from being established.”
Both residents and businesses have been vocal with their frustrations over the spread of homeless encampments all over Vista in the past several years, and the majority of locals seem largely supportive of the cleanup efforts being conducted, said Sgt. Al Gathings, of the Sheriff’s Department.
“Our businesses and citizens are frustrated by the amount of trash that gets left on private property because then they have to take on the financial burden of removing that trash themselves…with the cleanup efforts I’ve seen the citizens and business owners be very appreciative of us coming in and removing trash, waste, and things on that nature from their properties,” Gathings said.
A Worsening Crisis
While cleanups are an important step in protecting the quality of life of the city’s residents, Vista still needs to do more work in trying to solve issues that underlie homelessness, especially drug abuse and mental illness, said Franklin.
“It [homelessness] is continuing to get worse in our city,” the councilman said. “Homelessness is the number one problem in Vista and at the local and state government level…the urgency and imperative as a moral society to step in and help these people is tremendous.”
According to Gathings, a major challenge that authorities have run into with clearing encampments is that a large contingent of the homeless asked to leave refuse the city’s offer of temporary housing and instead just move elsewhere, continuing to live on the streets.
Persons who are addicted to drugs or are mentally ill are particularly likely to refuse the assistance offered during cleanups, Franklin said.
“When it comes to homelessness we continue to be hamstrung when we try to bring people help who need help but won’t voluntarily accept it,” the councilman said. “These people are suffering from real diseases that are mentally and physically destroying their bodies…what we need are meaningful solutions to get help for people who are addicted to drugs and many of whom are suffering from severe but treatable mental illnesses.”
While the encampment sweeps may appease frustrated locals, such action does little to alleviate the problems behind homelessness that have continued to worsen in spite of the city’s efforts, said Chris Megison, president of Solutions for Change, a homeless services organization that operates in the North County area.
“It’s an optics thing,” Megison said of the encampment cleanups. “In almost every scenario, the end result will be that they move people out, clean up the encampments, doing all the optics of hey we’re here to help and we’ve taken X amount of people off the streets, but the reality is that very few people will actually end up getting help and taking help.”
Vista’s unhoused population has rapidly risen in the last couple of years going back before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Megison said that city leadership bears some of the blame for the crisis.
“The reality is that the leadership of this city is messing up big time when it comes to organizing and applying resources…the right intent is there but they’re executing a failed design,” he said.
Instead of just offering encampment residents temporary housing, Megison said that the focus needs to be on connecting the homeless with longer-term services that address systemic issues of drug abuse, mental illness, and poverty.
“They’re trying to solve this with housing resources when the real problem is addiction…instead of spending millions of dollars on containing the impacts of homelessness by wiping out encampments and moving people around, they would spend significantly less money shifting their design and addressing the root causes,” he said.
“Shelters aren’t the answer, putting people behind a door isn’t the answer…getting somebody housed is fairly simple but getting somebody to address their addiction and mental health issues isn’t easy…that’s something that isn’t really happening that much in Vista right now. “
John Van Cleef, CEO of the Community Resource Center, said that instead of encampment sweeps the city should be prioritizing permanent housing solutions, long-term employment opportunities, and mental health care for the homeless.
“Clearing an encampment might address an immediate concern, but it more clearly highlights the greater human concern and need for comprehensive solutions to help people experiencing homelessness,” Cleef said.
Franklin defended the city’s actions, pointing out that the social workers connect those displaced by encampment sweeps with assistance that goes beyond housing, including medical services, mental health treatment programs, and drug rehabilitation centers.
While emphasizing that an empathic outlook on the homeless is important, the councilman also expressed that the severity of the problem warrants that the city balance compassion with a firm approach, backed up by decisive action.
“The answer to the homelessness crisis is for government to continue to provide shelter and the necessary wraparound services for those seeking housing while simultaneously pursuing enforcement,” Franklin said. “Government should proactively assist citizens in solving problems as well as using enforcement of the law to compel the use of that assistance.”
CalTrans was repeatedly contacted for comment for this article but did not respond.