Declaring that East County cities have “marginal involvement in homeless issues,” the San Diego County Grand Jury has given El Cajon, La Mesa, Lemon Grove and Santee until late August to respond to a June 8 report.

Beverly Fisher and her dog, “Mr. Wendall,” wait to veterinarian care at Golden Hall during a San Diego effort to help the homeless. Photo by Chris Stone

“Few homeless services exist [in the four cities] despite San Diego County guidelines that services should be located proportional to need,” said the five-page report.

The 19-member Grand Jury, including five East County residents, urged the cities launch programs to address homelessness issues by joining the Regional Continuum of Care Council and “devoting attention and resources to this under-served group.”

The vast majority of East County homelessness is in El Cajon — 711 people by a 2015 count — but La Mesa (19 homeless), Lemon Grove (11) and Santee (30) are cut little slack either.

“Given this meager participation in regional efforts, it is not surprising that no East County city has sought or received U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
grants for homelessness programs,” the report said.

San Diego County Grand Jury report on East County cities’ response to homelessness. (PDF)

In March 2016, HUD released almost $15 million in homelessness-related grants to San Diego County organizations and cities, the report said. Of the 55 programs funded, only one is in East County: Crisis House in El Cajon, which will get $192,211 for domestic violence transitional housing and $414,891 for its Journey Home program (also focused on domestic violence clients).

“This compares with 10 in North County and three in South Bay,” said the report titled “East County Cities’ Lack of Response to Homelessness.”

Homelessness also is costly for East County police and sheriff’s agencies, the report noted.

The Grand Jury, which surveyed the cities and interviewed officials, says the El Cajon Police Department estimated costs for arrests and calls dealing with homeless people was $411,000 in 2014.

That city’s police agency told the Grand Jury: “In order to effectively deal with the homeless population, the El Cajon Police Department believes there is a significant need for on-going, year-round housing and support services for the homeless.”

El Cajon’s East County Transitional Living Center and a concentration of low-cost motels get federal Community Development Block Grant funds to pay for an emergency shelter at an average eight rooms a night — but primarily between October and March, the report said.

El Cajon allocated $75,000 in the federal grants for shelter in the 2015-2016 fiscal year, and $100,000 in 2016-2017. But Santee appropriated just $2,000 of its grant money to Crisis House, and neither La Mesa nor Lemon Grove allocates city funds for homelessness issues, the report said.

Lemon Grove Mayor Mary Sessom told East County Magazine and later Times of San Diego that her city will be reviewing the report thoroughly and “give its recommendations careful consideration.”

“While we believe the information in the report is not complete [since] the only elected official consulted was Mayor Wells of El Cajon, we appreciate the look into the issue of homeless in East County,” Sessom said. “Homelessness is a serious matter and requires a careful coordinated regional strategy.”

La Mesa Vice Mayor Bill Baber was quoted as saying, “Homelessness is a regional problem and we need regional solutions. I support La Mesa joining the Regional Continuum of Care Council as a municipal member.”

The county Grand Jury investigates the operations of governmental programs of the county, cities and special districts.

“It may examine any aspect of county government and city government, including special legislative districts and joint powers agencies, to ensure that the best interests of San Diego County citizens are being served,” says its website.

Times of San Diego has contacted the mayors of all four cities for comment. Each city must make a formal response to the Grand Jury by Aug. 29.

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