This weekend we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., who was born January 15, 1929 at his family home in Atlanta. He was assassinated April 4, 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he was helping lead sanitation workers as they protested low wages and intolerable conditions.
The dehumanizing discrimination that King devoted his life to fighting, and ultimately died in pursuit of, encourages self-reflection for all of us on this holiday weekend. Dr. King was not only the symbolic African American leader in the segregated south, he also laid the foundation for so many of our nation’s civil rights struggles, including those of women, LGBTQ, other people of color, and the disability community.
Three of Dr. King’s many famous quotes strike me this weekend, as we at the City of Encinitas aim to help disenfranchised and largely voiceless community members who live in poverty on our streets, in the midst of our city’s affluence:
• “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”
• “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
• “A genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus, but a molder of consensus.”
So what exactly are we doing for others? Are we standing around waiting to see if a consensus emerges? Or are we balancing multiple objectives and deciding to act to better the lives of a few in need, for the betterment of the entire community?
This Wednesday, January 22, at our City Council meeting, we’ll consider the hot-button topic of whether to allow 25 safe overnight parking spots for people who have lost their homes but still have a working car.
For the last month, at the direction of the City Council on a 4-1 vote, the city staff has been working together with Jewish Family Services and the Leichtag Foundation to iron out the details of an agreement for final consideration by the Encinitas City Council. Here is the staff report that will be presented at the meeting.
While thoughtful and compassionate residents have civilly expressed their disagreement with aspects of this Safe Parking proposal, it has also has inspired sharp, fearful and aggressive opposition. The city has already received litigation threats, a petition in opposition, and every day we receive dozens of emails, both in favor and opposed. The controversy is on the front page of both local newspapers, the Coast News and Encinitas Advocate, this week.
Let’s recap the facts about the Safe Parking program:
It would be open from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. seven days a week, with security present during these hours. A critical part of a Safe Parking program is that every night social services and counseling help would be provided on site.
In addition to bathrooms, handwashing stations and showers, the participants agree to be smoke, drug and alcohol-free. The participants must be registered with the program (it’s not first come, first serve) and working to better their circumstances and get back into housing.
Many of the participants are first-time homeless people, some are community college students, others are families that attend local schools, or seniors with limited incomes. Most have a source of income. This is not a program for the severely mentally ill, chronically homeless, or drug or alcohol-addicted. This FAQ from JFS is an excellent, substantive and direct response to the most common questions.
The city knows from last year’s Point-in-Time count that we have at least 51 people documented to be living in vehicles in Encinitas. This program serves no more than 25 cars.
If you are following California public policy at any level of government, there’s no topic receiving more attention than our current epidemic of homelessness – unsheltered people living in places not fit for human habitation, whether that’s in a ravine, on a sidewalk in a tent, or under a freeway bridge in a car.
At levels of government above the City of Encinitas, the proposals range from a dedicated focus on supply-side housing production, more involuntary hospitalization, state lands being used to house homeless, efforts to re-criminalize behaviors associated with living without a home, (such as sleeping on a sidewalk), and every city being required to provide shelter beds for each homeless person (Encinitas doesn’t have a homeless shelter).
I don’t set state or county-level policy, so here’s what I see from my more modest vantage point as your mayor:
We need to do more in Encinitas to help our residents who are struggling. Like every city, we have a homeless problem and it’s getting worse, which invariably reduces quality of life for everyone. We need to get in front of this problem.
We have before us a proposal from two reputable, well-qualified, highly-regarded entities to run a Safe Parking pilot program for up to two years, using state grant funds. We already have people sleeping in their cars who are not safe outside on dark streets. They’re receiving parking tickets and often being asked to move. These are the folks who need help getting back into housing.
We have listened carefully to all voices, and I feel we’ve addressed the main complaints to the Safe Parking program:
- “We fear for our safety” – The lot has security, perimeter fencing and staff on site all night. Three other operating Safe Parking lots in San Diego County run by JFS do not have safety problems. We will closely monitor all levels of crime, from calls for service to criminal activity. The people in the program are pre-vetted and screened. The lot is centered among acres of non-residential property.
- “The homeless deserve better” – Of course they do. But the question is whether this Safe Parking program could improve lives. Safe Parking lots are proven to work at stopping the downward spiral into street homelessness that will later require much more intensive interventions and result in much more suffering.
- “The process was lacking” – I disagree that the only acceptable process is years of meetings before any action is taken. The city has not cut any corners here. The proposal was discussed at length during a noticed public City Council meeting; the city held a community forum to present the proposal, answer questions and gather feedback; the Leichtag Foundation held a forum on site and answered questions.
Based on feedback from the first public City Council meeting, the location of the parking lot was moved to a more private and internal location, with no visibility from the street, and the amount of security was increased. The process for more homelessness solutions is ongoing as we’re preparing a comprehensive homeless plan, which will involve more important community input. We will have another meeting inviting public feedback this Wednesday, to hear the latest details of the proposed agreement.
- “We should help the homeless, but somewhere else. Don’t lay out the welcome mat.” – They are already here in Encinitas; we’re not inviting outsiders. We have a responsibility to do our part for our people. The 63-acre Leichtag property is perfectly, centrally located and the generosity and attitude of the host helps create the program’s success. Homeless people don’t have the money to drive long distances to school or work. People become homeless in the communities where they already live. We are helping our own, who already outnumber the available parking spots.
As the words and deeds of Dr. King continue to inspire us, I encourage you to take a moment this weekend to learn more about his life, legacy, and what he stood for. Let’s consider how we can embody his wisdom and compassion here at home in Encinitas.