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Vista unhoused parking and camping
A homeless parking lot in Southern California. File photo
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Vista City Council to consider parking, camping for unhoused

VISTA — The Vista City Council will consider establishing Safe Camping and Safe Parking sites for unhoused and homeless individuals within city limits, which would allow qualified persons to stay overnight in designated areas without being removed or ticketed by law enforcement. 

By a 4-1 vote at the council’s Jan. 25 meeting, city leaders gave the go-ahead for staff to conduct research investigating how Vista could set up a Safe Camping program for the unhoused. The vote doesn’t mean that these programs will necessarily be implemented but does direct the City Council to vote on such a proposal at a future meeting (the council did not specify a date for this vote). 

Council members Katie Melendez, Corinna Contreras, John Franklin and Joe Green all voted in favor of the resolution, while Mayor Judy Ritter voted against the proposal. 

In the coming months ahead, city staff will study whether safe camping will provide relief for the homeless, what impact such a plan would have on the communities nearby these zones, and in what areas of the city such a program could be successfully implemented, according to City Clerk Kathy Valdez. 

If the council enacts a similar resolution at a future meeting, the city could establish campsites for the homeless that would include restrooms, trash cans, fencing and various services provided by social workers and local law enforcement. 

The number of residents experiencing homelessness continues to increase…If you ask someone in Vista, ‘Do you know or have you recently seen someone sleeping in their car?’ The answer is yes,” said Contreras. “The people of Vista really want solutions…What we want to establish in Vista is a structured approach to reducing and eliminating homelessness, which requires that we meet people where they’re at right now.” 

Given the number of homeless individuals who already sleep in their cars or camp out unlawfully on city property, Contreras expressed that it makes sense for Vista to condense such activity into designated living spaces that can be effectively supervised and enforced. 

“Safe parking and safe camping is a stopgap measure, and there are just so many benefits that come from this including being able to do outreach, to being able to reduce some of the issues we’ve seen with unhoused people who are in public places…we have residents who are in desperate need of a place to rest their heads, and this is just something that we need to do,” Contreras said. 

Resident Peter Kuchinsky wrote in support of the program and suggested a parking lot alongside the Jim Porter Recreation Center at Brengle Terrace Park could serve as a possible test site.

Council members also discussed modeling a safe camping/parking zone after a similar program that was enacted in Encinitas in 2020. Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear called into the meeting and spoke in favor of Vista implementing such a proposal, touting the “unqualified success” of Encinitas’s Safe Parking Program

“The Safe Parking Program has been a great step in a homelessness prevention program …it’s a recognition of the reality that we don’t have enough actual housing, that there are people living in places where they need help, and we don’t want them to end up on the streets,” Blakespear said. 

Jewish Family Service, a regional nonprofit that also runs two other such operations in San Diego, operates the Safe Parking Program in Encinitas and there is no direct financial cost to the city for maintaining the site. Additionally, Blakespear noted that occupants of these sites have to pass background checks and must be drug and alcohol-free before being allowed into the program.  

“We have meticulously followed the data on this and there have been no negative neighborhood consequences in Encinitas, we don’t have safety concerns…the bottom line is it’s helped people and hurt no one,” Blakespear said. 

Conversely, Ritter expressed strong opposition to safe camping sites, arguing that the implementation of such a plan would exacerbate Vista’s homelessness problem by making the city a magnet for unhoused persons coming in from other cities. 

“When you look at Encinitas, I read from reports that three-fourths of the people at these parking lots aren’t even from Encinitas, and the people there aren’t happy in those neighborhoods…I don’t see that bringing in people from other places and having a safe parking or safe camping area would be good for improving the image of our city,” Ritter said. 

“We’re already looking at putting a new homeless shelter here in Vista, now you’re looking at putting a safe camping site…I don’t know if you’re trying to make Vista the homeless capital of North County or what but I would not be in support of this.” 

Melendez refuted the mayor’s comments, arguing that the safe camping proposal would be an effective way of organizing the homeless, particularly families, into safer and more serviceable areas. 

“These folks are already here, they’re already camping, people are already sleeping in their cars. There’s not a demand for this that we’re creating with this plan, the demand is already there,” Melendez said. “What can we do to establish a campground for people that has facilities, so that they’re not throwing their trash on the ground, that has trash cans, that has programming…this is not a solution and it does not reflect the quality of life that I think people deserve…but if somebody is camping along Conservancy Trail or along Emerald Drive, there needs to be a safer environment for those folks.” 

Conteras took exception to the Ritter’s remarks, which she said were “based on misconceptions about homelessness and behavioral health.”

“It is very sad to hear that by creating interventions that people need, that it’s suddenly going to make this a homeless capital, that’s heartbreaking,” she said. 

Vista homeless camping
A group of residents holds signs outside of Encinitas City Hall in Sept. 2021 in opposition to the city’s proposed relocation of the Safe Parking Lot to the Encinitas Community and Senior Center. Photo by Bill Slane
Criticisms of Safe Parking and Camping

Safe parking and camping programs are far from safe in practice, only exacerbate homelessness, and are a misuse of city resources, according to Chris Megison, president of Solutions for Change, a homeless services nonprofit that operates in the North County area.

Megison criticized the council’s vote, which he said reflects a misguided focus on short-term solutions that look good to the public but do little to address the actual challenges faced by the unhoused.

“The way I would respond to the city on this is that this is not the kind of intervention that’s going to lead to longer-term solutions…why are you spending time, money, and effort on this kind of intervention strategy when you could be doing something to address the real problems facing the homeless, namely rampant drug addiction and mental health? I’m just really disappointed by the leadership of Vista,” Megison said. 

Far from creating a safer and more serviceable environment for homeless families, city-managed campsites are generally “unsafe cesspools of drugs and crime,” said Megison, whose nonprofit regularly conducts outreach efforts at these sites. 

“We do outreach into these kinds of places to reach people who are drug addicts, and let me tell you when you walk into these places it is not a place where you would want your child if you are homeless… these places are sold to the public as compassionate humanitarian outreach services, but there is not much in the way of real humanity inside of these places,” Megison said. “These are places that are not safe, instead, they’re loaded with people who are on drugs or looking for drugs.” 

Megison also disputed Blakespear’s claims that the Encinitas program has been a success, arguing that the city’s Safe Parking Program has only magnified the negative impacts of homelessness on the surrounding communities. 

“The Encinitas mayor is straight out lying or being lied to…the people staying in these places are suffering, they’re stuck there…I can’t imagine the numbers you’re looking at to call this a success — I mean what do you define as a success, people living in parking lots?” 

Blakespear fired back in response, contending that such criticisms of her city’s program are not based on real evidence and reflect a systematic misunderstanding of how safe parking sites operate. 

The claim that homeless campsites and parking lots become a breeding ground for drug use is wholly inaccurate because Encinitas’s program doesn’t allow drugs onto operated sites, Blakespear said. Additionally, over the past two years since the proposal was implemented, Encinitas hasn’t seen any increase in crime in these places, she added. 

While Blakespear acknowledged the Safe Parking program isn’t a long-term fix to homelessness, she emphasized the importance of the program as a stop-gap measure that provides relief for the unhoused and alleviates some of the pressure that homelessness puts on communities.

“Homelessness doesn’t just get better on its own…if we want change, we have to provide different options for people…Vista already has this population in its city, so do we get in front of this or do we let it grow and grow and grow? Of course, there are structural problems to be addressed…but we need as city leaders to say what can we do as leaders to get in front of this problem — and I think that’s preferable to inaction.”