Serving meals to groups of homeless people in parks and other public spaces is now against the law in El Cajon as well as panhandling, sleeping on the sidewalk and setting up encampments.
The tough restrictions are part of the city’s strategy to combat homelessness and hepatitis A. Homeless people argue the measures are uncompassionate and cruel.
“It’s like, don’t feed the birds,” said Michael McGough, 35, sitting on a pile of cardboard on the side of Magnolia Avenue.
“The next thing you know it’s like, don’t feed the humans at the park,” he said, choking back tears. “It’s horrible. It’s degrading. It makes you feel like you’re smaller.”
El Cajon has one of the highest poverty rates in the county, at 24 percent. The East County city also has a soaring homeless population, with 323 people living on the streets, according to the January 2017 count by the Regional Task Force On The Homeless.
McGough said he has lived in “survival mode” since childhood, but he has never felt so hopeless. He said the city’s new ordinances have dug him into a deeper hole.
“What are we supposed to do?” he asked. “How are we supposed to live? Are we not human?”
McGough said his desperate situation stems from a drug addiction.
“Something I want to get away from,” he said. “I need to get away from it because it’s not only the lifestyle that leeches and holds onto you.”
Skyrocketing drug use among homeless people, like McGough, is the reason behind the city’s new ban on panhandling, said El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells.
“If you’re giving someone ten dollars and you’re hoping they’re going to use it for food, I understand that,” Wells said. “But the reality is, they’re not using it for food, they’re using it for crystal methamphetamines. They’re using it for alcohol, they’re using it for opioids. And all these things perpetuate homelessness and they perpetuate diseases like hepatitis A."
Anti-panhandling signs are posted at dozens of intersections across the city urging the public to donate to homeless outreach providers instead of giving money to people holding cardboard signs.
Wells said the city is also pouring money into homeless services and housing, including transitional living centers, shelters, housing navigators, rental assistance vouchers, a family reunification program, and a phone app that connects homeless individuals with services.
“We want people to be able to get off the streets, but if you do that, you’re going to have to follow some rules and you’re going to have to not use drugs and alcohol while you’re in our programs,” Wells said.
Those who decline services are facing increased enforcement, he added.
“We’re not going to let people have tents on the street. We’re not going to let tent cities grow up,” he said. “We’re not going to just let people sleep wherever they want to sleep. We’re going to maintain some rules and some discipline.”
Another new city rule, a food-sharing ban, aims to stop the spread of hepatitis A, which has killed 20 people and sickened 530 across San Diego County.
El Cajon has the second largest concentration of the contagious, liver-damaging illness in the county, and is believed to be where the outbreak began.
“The best way to stop that is by stopping transmission,” Wells said. “I know it’s kind of gross, but of fecal matter from the hand to the mouth.”
Church groups and charities are temporarily prohibited from providing their usual dozens of weekly potluck-style meals to throngs of homeless people at city parks.
Mayor Wells said food needs to be prepared, cooked and served in a more sanitary way.
“There are lots of places where people can still get meals,” Wells said. “Lots of the churches are taking the meals out of the parks and into their kitchens, which that makes a lot more sense.”
Pastor Rolland Slade’s congregation at Meridian Southern Baptist Church of El Cajon has served lunch to dozens of people at Wells Park every Saturday, for years. Lunch included a time of fellowship, worship and songs.
But the new ordinance has church members looking for alternative ways to help. Last Saturday they distributed clothing and restaurant gift cards.
“The part that’s missing is the fellowship that we have with them,” Slade said. “Getting to know their story. Once you get to know a person’s story you’re able to help them with the resources that they need.”
Slade said he understands the city’s efforts but wants to have further dialogue.
“I think the city’s trying to deal with it from their point of view and from laws, ordinances and regulations,” he said. “The faith community, we understand that. But we also need to come to the table and be there with a creative solution.”
Alessa Williams, 29 who has lived on the streets of El Cajon for two years, said she often relied on the church’s meals in the park.
“There have been days when I feel like it’s saved my life,” she said. “I thank God every day for the people that help.”
Williams said the strict new measures are making it harder for her to break her homeless cycle.
“Homeless people are being singled out,” she said. “It’s kind of like we’re being black sheeped from (the) community.”
Williams was unable to finish her thought. During her interview with KPBS, police rolled up to the sidewalk to ask her and her half-dozen homeless friends to move along.