The La Mesa City Council on Tuesday rejected an approach to homelessness suggested by new member Laura Lothian — move people experiencing lack of housing to a 16-acre site with existing facilities for sale at 431 Jeb Stuart Road in Campo.
It would be a place where the homeless could live “kinda in the middle of nowhere” where perhaps the land could be farmed, Lothian said.
In the end, the council opted for a proposal to join forces with San Diego County and the cities of El Cajon, Lemon Grove and Santee. The council unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, to communicate and collaborate on a solution to a regional problem.
Proposed by county Supervisor Joel Anderson, the five-year MOU enables cooperation in identifying potential locations to site “low-barrier emergency housing” and on-site services as well as permanent supportive housing in each city to house unsheltered people.
The MOU would be a catch basin for any and all ideas, where the possibilities of collaboration on numerous projects would be weighed and considered. Should La Mesa find the MOU not working, it can just walk away from the deal; it is not legally binding.
Assistant City Manager Carlo Fomaino explained that in 2009, the City of Boise lost a ruling passed down by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that found its ordinance targeting the homeless violated the 8th Amendment of the Constitution.
Fomaino said that Idaho city’s “citations against the homeless individuals without access to shelter met the criteria for cruel and unusual punishment.” For La Mesa and other cities without shelters, it means jailing or citing the homeless is not an option.
The city of El Cajon approved the MOU in April. The cities of Santee and Lemon Grove are expected to consider the MOU at upcoming meetings in May or June.
The La Mesa Citizens Task Force on Homelessness, created in 2019 by the council, has been tasked with helping find programs designed to prevent homelessness and housing insecurity. And the task force was very much in favor of the council approving the agreement.
Lothian, a Republican, noted that no one is looking for a solution outside the community. She went on to describe how her job in real estate sales allows her to travel the city every day and sees homeless encampments, vandalism and human feces.
While she supports finding a solution, she questions the lack of input from the business community or neighborhoods in helping address the issue.
As an agent, she knows how costly land is in La Mesa and believes a “piecemeal approach will be too expensive” for finding a place for the homeless.
She suggested moving the population to Campo to a property “rich in history,” adding ”there is nowhere else you can get a deal like this.”
Current tenants, she said, include the Border Patrol, a gas station, post office, a Baptist Church, a VFW Hall, a feed and grain store and 28 residential buildings.
The cost would be $5.45 million.
“All I want is to explore the possibility,” she said.
When the council was asked for a second to her motion, the room grew silent. And stayed that way.
While no one spoke up to support her suggestion, when it came time for public response, it sounded like the town of Campo called in.
Julie Valsco pointed out she lives in a 200-home housing development near the location. A small sheriff’s station there closes at 5 p.m.
“We don’t have resources to do this.” she said, then asked with the extreme fire danger in their area how people on the property could be evacuated.
Jody Herbert, also of Campo, wondered where the homeless might find work and how they would get there, since there is no mass transit in Campo. She said the late Father Joe Carroll tried to do a similar project in the back country and it failed.
Besides, she said, “I moved from El Cajon because I want to live in a rural area.”
Tina Reyes, another resident of the area, said she is a healthcare worker and pointed out there is only one medical facility in the area and no hospital.
“Relocating is not solving the problem — you are just moving it from one area to another.” She added: It’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind.”
As the discussion came to a close, Lothian wanted everyone to know she was not part of any deal involving the property she had just promoted.
J.W. August is an award-winning journalist and freelance producer who has served as investigative producer for NBC 7 San Diego and as managing editor and senior investigative producer at ABC 10 San Diego. A version of this report originally appeared on East County Magazine, a member of the San Diego Online News Association.