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Public Safety

El Cajon mayor fights back after AG's warning over homeless motel vouchers

The fight over a San Diego County program that gives motel vouchers to unhoused people seeking shelter in El Cajon is heating up Monday.

El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, responding to Attorney General Rob Bonta's warning that the city is violating state and federal housing laws by threatening fines to hotels and motels participating in the county's Bridge Motel Voucher Program, said Bonta's assessment is "egregiously false."

"In the Attorney General's letter or tweet, there was no mention that the County and its contractor have failed to properly screen participants in the voucher program, which has resulted in spikes in crime, increased calls for police and fire service, and increased open drug usage and sales at and around the participating motels," Wells said in a statement Monday.

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According to the city, the El Cajon Police Department made more than 20 arrests at or near participating motels in the past 10 days. The standoff started nearly two weeks ago when Wells and City Manager Graham Mitchell accused the county of dumping unsheltered individuals in the East County city.

Of the 18 motels and hotels participating in the county voucher program, eight are in El Cajon. According to the county, 83% of the homeless in the local voucher program are from El Cajon and 94% are from East County.

"That's why they stay in the East County," Supervisor Nathan Fletcher told KPBS news partner 10 News on Monday. He called the city's code enforcement action against hotel and motel owners in the program a stunt.

El Cajon sent out notices on Sept. 16 to seven of eight participating hotels, claiming they are violating the city's code by operating an unauthorized shelter and directed them to reduce their voucher occupancy to no more than 25% — or face possible fines. Wells claimed that at some motels in the program, 100% of the occupancy are from individuals using vouchers.

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On Friday, Bonta sent a letter to Wells and the rest of the El Cajon City Council, saying the city's action was in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

“The City of El Cajon’s recent actions threaten to turn some of San Diego County's most vulnerable residents out onto the street based solely on their source of income — vouchers provided by the County to cover the cost of temporary housing at local hotels," Bonta said in a statement issued Saturday. "Let me be clear: Housing discrimination in any form will not be tolerated. The City of El Cajon’s threats to local hotels are a clear violation of the law, and the City must immediately reverse course or face legal consequences.”

The Attorney General's office demanded that El Cajon rescind the warnings, refrain from sending similar notices in the future, publically declare that motels and hotels in the program are not subjected to punishment from the city and direct police to "cease any unlawful harassment" of individuals staying in those hotels using vouchers.

Fletcher applauded Bonta's move.

"I appreciate the attorney general saying you’re not going to violate every state and federal housing law. Not here in California,” he said.

Wells fired back, saying the findings from the Attorney General's office are "one-sided."

“It is also interesting that the County relocating homeless from other parts of the region to El Cajon is in direct violation to the very code section the Attorney General cites," Wells said in a statement. "Did the County also receive a letter from the Attorney General?”

Wells said his opposition to the voucher program is one of public safety concerns and not because he lacks compassion for unsheltered individuals.

In the meantime, El Cajon on Friday rescinded those warning notices to the motels and hotels as a "sign of good faith" after what it said was a productive meeting with the owners.

The El Cajon City Council is expected to discuss Bonta's letter and determine the city's next steps at its 3 p.m. meeting Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the county Board of Supervisors is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposal to declare homelessness a health crisis. The proposal was brought forth by Chair Fletcher and Vice Chair Nora Vargas. If approved, the county would act as a backbone for collaboration between the county’s 18 incorporated cities and the Task Force on Homelessness. It will make it easier to develop a regional approach to homelessness, such as outreach services, mental health assistance and creating more affordable housing.

Vargas said it’s the county's responsibility to keep unsheltered individuals safe.

"Our commitment as a county is unwavering," she said. "We’re going to do everything that we can to make sure we use resources adequately. We need to not forget that these are human beings and we need to treat them with dignity and respect. And they deserve to be treated that way.”

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