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Dispute over county's hotel voucher program for homeless continues in El Cajon

A dispute continues in El Cajon with the city looking to limit a San Diego County program that allows the homeless to temporarily live in local hotel rooms through vouchers.

"We knew that there was a program but no one called us and told us, 'Hey we’re going to fill your hotel to 100%,'" El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells said. "How hard would it be to do that? I can tell you why they didn't do this, they didn't want us to say, 'No.'"

Wells and other El Cajon officials held a news conference last week where they accused the San Diego County Board of Supervisors of dumping homeless residents in city motels.

Wells also said too many of the rooms are being used by people from outside El Cajon, creating public safety issues.

"To be honest, anecdotally, we’re hearing there’s a lot of people from outside of the East County area so I’d be curious to get some hard numbers," Wells said.

County officials said 63% of the homeless in the local voucher program are from El Cajon and 94% are from East County.

There are 18 hotels and motels in the county voucher program. Eight are in El Cajon, four in San Diego, two in Chula Vista, one in Escondido, two in Santee and another in Vista.

County Supervisor Joel Anderson questioned the timing of El Cajon’s objections to the voucher program.

"They (city of El Cajon officials) didn’t have a problem with it over the last year," said Anderson, whose district covers El Cajon. "This program is over a year old, but only now do they have a problem."

Wells said at least one hotel was nearly 100% full, while others were in the 25-80% range. He said officials were alerted to the numbers after noticing an increase in the number of unsheltered residents.

But Anderson said the program has not grown substantially.

"Last year this month we had 111 people there," he said. "Today we have 121. I’m sorry we didn’t tell you about the 10 new people."

Anderson said he wants the county and El Cajon to work together, not against each other.

"Kicking those people out into the streets means that we have no way to work with them for permanent housing," he said. "Our case workers won’t be able to find them and the wrap-around services won’t be available. I don't think that’s the right direction."

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher has called Wells a fraud over the matter and said it is irresponsible for the city of El Cajon to try and limit the number of people in the county’s hotel voucher program.

"If this goes through, the only outcome of this will be hundreds of more homeless people across East County," he said. "And that’s a great disservice, not just for the unsheltered individuals, that's a disservice to every neighbor who’s going to have these folks pushed back into their neighborhood."

Wells, however, denied the city is kicking anyone out. But the city has ordered hotels to reduce capacity and issued notices with potential fines for illegally operating as emergency shelters.

"So we cited people for that, but frankly we’re working with people and I don’t think we’re going to end up fining anybody," Wells said. "They just have to comply with having less than 25%."

A spokesperson for Supervisor Fletcher said the hotels are not operating as emergency shelters because the businesses are being paid for the stays.

Wells said he plans to bring forward an ordinance to the city council that would limit the number of homeless residents in the voucher program to no more than 15% per hotel.

Meanwhile, Dawn Disney, a diabetic, who uses the vouchers, said they are a lifesaver.

"I have to take insulin now and you have to keep it cold so I can’t be outside," Disney said with her two dogs by her side. "So it’s just frustrating."

Disney said she has lived in El Cajon since 2002 and first became homeless in 2013.

"Why would you not want hotels to be helping homeless people?" she asked.

San Diego County officials said El Cajon Police officers have asked program participants for their identification, where they came from, and demanded guest lists from hotel managers.

Fletcher called that approach reckless.

"They’re intimidating the private business owners of the hotels who voluntarily participate in this program and they are intimidating residents," he said. "It’s just a really unfortunate time."

One hotel manager told KPBS there appears to be no other option than to comply with the city directive to reduce capacity. The county voucher program pays hotels up to $145 per night for rooms and Wells said operators have enjoyed the extra bookings.

"They love this program, but there are more factors involved in this,” Wells said. “We have to pay for our police department."

Wells texted KPBS a news release late Tuesday which said El Cajon police have made three drug-related arrests of people in the hotel voucher program. The release also said a fugitive using the program was arrested on suspicion of firearms-related offenses.

Wells said he believes a compromise can be found. El Cajon officials have another meeting with the county to discuss the program later this week.

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