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El Cajon, county leaders square off over homeless motel voucher program

Homeless people stand in front of their make-shift shelters on 17th Street in San Diego's East Village, June 28, 2016.
Susan Murphy
Homeless people stand in front of their make-shift shelters on 17th Street in San Diego's East Village, June 28, 2016.

Elected leaders in El Cajon Wednesday called out county government for "dumping" homeless people in their community's motels, a claim county officials say is misinformed and harmful.

El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells and City Manager Graham Mitchell held a news conference in front of a motel in the East County city Wednesday morning to describe changes in the calls for public safety services around some of its motels. They said the increase in calls to police and Emergency Medical Services was how the city first learned of what they claim is an increase in motel voucher program usage.

"Not only did we notice an increase in crime and need for medical responses around some of these motels, our police officers started noticing new homeless individuals, along with drug dealers who prey on them, and open drug use," Mitchell said.


According to data collected by the city last weekend, of the 703 occupied rooms last Saturday night, 26% — or 185 rooms — were occupied with someone using a homeless motel voucher. Two motels, El Cajon leaders claim, were 100% occupied with people using county motel vouchers.

"It is very frustrating that the county never bothered to let us know about using El Cajon's motels as homeless shelters," Wells said. "I wonder if El Cajon is the only city the county dumps its homeless in or are they equally distributed in places like Del Mar and La Jolla?"

Two county supervisors said the claims were misleading and El Cajon needed to do its part in combating the homelessness crisis.

"The Board of Supervisors is taking action in a bi-partisan way to do the difficult work of getting people off the streets and into permanent housing," board Chairman Nathan Fletcher said. "Mayor Bill Wells and the city of El Cajon want to push them back onto the streets. The public expects us to take action and El Cajon is playing a tired old blame game that does nothing to address the problem of homelessness in our region.

"We stand ready to work with anyone who is willing to do the tough work to get people off the streets but will not be deterred or distracted by those trying to drag us backwards," Fletcher continued.


According to the county, the vouchers come with services and case management. A full 30% of the people leaving the voucher program are moved into permanent housing, officials said. Of the 121 individuals using vouchers at El Cajon hotels and motels, roughly 64% are from El Cajon and around 94% of are from East County.

"To say that county is secretly using El Cajon as a dumping ground is misinformed," said Supervisor Joel Anderson, who represents El Cajon. "In the future, I believe our shared constituents would be better served if we worked together, rather than through press conferences."

Wells and Mitchell dispute the county's arguments, claiming that even without these makeshift shelters, El Cajon makes available more homeless shelter beds per capita than any other city in the county.

Mitchell described what he called the unsafe conditions of the motels after visiting one on Monday morning.

"I was shocked to see one of the tenants of the motel sitting in front with a rolled dollar bill about to snort drugs," he said. "Another man was coming off fentanyl; he did not look well. As I was getting ready to call 911 because he was about to go unconscious, a drug dealer told me to mind my own business. I was told to "get the f—- out or I'll beat the s—- out of you." That was my cue to leave."

However, the county says hotel and motel owners voluntarily decide to participate in the voucher program.

"It is not the county's place to tell the city of El Cajon's businesses how they should operate or who to conduct their business with nor should the county handle the city of El Cajon's law enforcement," a statement from the county reads. "If the voucher program no longer aligns with the city's commitment to addressing the issue of homelessness from a regional approach, we have full confidence in their ability to find solutions — and in their police department to ensure the residents of El Cajon are safe."