OCEANSIDE — The first Homelessness Ad-Hoc Committee focused on the current state of homelessness in the city and outlined its goals at its first public hearing on Jan. 30.
The committee consists of housing commissioners including Housing Commissioner Michelle Gomez; Linda Walshaw, who will serve as the vice chairperson of the Housing Commission; former City Treasurer Rafe Edward Trickey Jr. and Eileen Costa.
Additional committee participants include Neighborhood Services Director Margery Pierce, Neighborhood Services Administrative Secretary George Rivera, Economic Development Commissioner Ward O’Doherty, Jordy Sparks representing Oceanside Unified School District, Alisha Eftekhari representing Behavioral Health Services in the North Coastal Region, Piedad Garcia representing the county of San Diego and a formerly homeless community member.
Gomez said the committee’s first task is to begin to identify and examine causes and possible solutions for homelessness, including economic distress, substance abuse, mental illness, physical and sexual abuse, human trafficking, inadequate veteran services and dislocation due to sexual and gender identities.
Community and city leaders, including Police Chief Frank McCoy, presented information at the meeting that put the state of homelessness in the city and region into perspective.
“Homelessness is at the forefront of every town and city throughout this state,” McCoy said.
McCoy noted there has been a 28 percent decrease in homelessness in Oceanside since 2016, using data from the annual Point-in-Time-Count by the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless. He also said the majority of homeless in Oceanside were previously city residents.
McCoy outlined several ways the city has done to address homelessness in the last several years, including providing additional funds for police department resources and the creation of the department’s Homeless Outreach Team, which consists of two officers, a sergeant and a social worker.
McCoy also listed challenges the police department faces when trying to address homelessness, such as the protection of endangered species and habitat around the San Luis Rey River, where many homeless encampments have appeared.
“We would like to clear out all of that shrubbery there that causes problems for us, but it is protected habitat and we cannot clean that out,” he said.
McCoy included some laws and court rulings as challenges to the police department, such as Proposition 47, a 2014 voter-approved ballot initiative that reduces certain drug possession felonies and petty theft to misdemeanors; and a recent U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit determining homeless people cannot be criminalized for sleeping outdoors on public property as long as there isn’t an indoor option available.
“Because of the way that our laws are written at this point, when someone gets arrested for low-grade crimes, they go to jail for a short period of time and are released back out into the street,” he said.
Greg Anglea, chief executive officer of Interfaith Community Services, detailed services available in the region to homeless people and how those services are crucial to helping people get back on their feet.
Interfaith Community Services has contracted with the city of Oceanside to provide two social workers to the Homeless Outreach Team and to the city’s housing authority.
Anglea also serves as the board president for North County’s Alliance for Regional Solutions. He said the alliance coordinates six “bridge to housing shelters” in the region, including a seasonal shelter operated by Bread of Life in Oceanside. Those shelters served 1,008 unique individuals last year, Anglea said.
Homelessness is a larger issue than most people realize, according to Anglea, who explained that the stereotypical images of homeless are not the realities for every homeless person.
“The good news is homelessness is solvable for every single person,” he said. “We’ve seen stories of perseverance, and what people can do when they’re given the right-sized level of support.”
According to Anglea, housing is the only proven intervention to end homelessness, but other support services are often necessary.
“You can’t end homelessness without housing, but you often can’t end homelessness with just housing,” he said. “Some people may need a little bit of extra support along the way.”
Anthony White, associated student government vice president at Palomar College, presented his efforts to establish an overnight parking program on the college’s campus for students sleeping in their cars. The 28-year-old Marine veteran has firsthand experience in what it’s like to be a homeless college student living out his car.
For White, the larger issue across California’s community colleges is there isn’t any advocacy for homeless students.
When White was homeless, he was a full-time student at MiraCosta College and was working full-time as well, yet he was still stuck in the same situation. He eventually connected with the Veterans Association of North County, and was later given referrals, first month’s rent and furniture expenses.
“Thankfully as a veteran I had access to assistance that most people facing housing insecurities don’t have,” he said. “I think that needs to really roll over into just anybody facing these issues.”
Several members of the public who were formerly homeless and one who is currently homeless also shared their thoughts on the issue with the committee.
“I think we should have programs that really help these people budget, really help them figure out how to build a career,” said Roy Cisneros, who also said he and his four children are currently sleeping in hotels during the week and in their car on weekends.
To Cisneros, issuing citations to homeless people adds another expense and makes it harder for them to find housing. He noted people with criminal histories have a harder time finding a job and housing because of their records.
“I think instead of making things difficult for the homeless, we have to figure out a way to make it easier,” he said.
The Homelessness Ad-hoc Committee will have monthly public hearings between February and June before it presents its findings and recommendations to the Housing Commission in July. The committee’s hope is that its recommendations will be adopted by the Housing Commission and sent to City Council for review.
Residents can submit their ideas for the ad-hoc committee to email@example.com.
Samantha Nelson covers Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She earned her journalism degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and has previously reported for The Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, and USA Today in McLean, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @samm1son