ENCINITAS — The Encinitas City Council on Wednesday unanimously granted a three-year extension of the Safe Parking Program at the city’s Community and Senior Center.
The program, a homeless parking lot operated by Jewish Family Services (JFS), will run through June 30, 2025, at its current location along Oakcrest Park Drive. In 2021, the program was relocated from its original site at the Leichtag Foundation property on Saxony Road.
The Safe Parking Program allows qualified persons to stay overnight in the designated area without being removed or ticketed by law enforcement. Individuals in the program are vetted and must agree to strict rules and guidelines to remain in the program, such as rules prohibiting the use of drugs or alcohol while staying in the lot.
A staff report presented at Wednesday’s meeting showed the program had served 154 individuals since February 2020 — 38 of whom were Encinitas residents. The report found the overwhelming majority of persons assisted by the Safe Parking Program had “positive outcomes,” also noting no increase in criminal activity associated with the program.
“JFS has been an amazing service provider,” said Councilwoman Joy Lyndes. “I think things have gone smoothly and effectively. This program fills a need to keep people from becoming homeless. One hundred fifty-four people have been served, 33 households have been housed, and 25 people have been reconciled or reconnected with their families. To me, that’s a huge success, those are people who would have gone into a homeless situation, and we were able to catch them before they did.”
Deputy Mayor Joe Mosca agreed, noting that since its inception, the program has successfully met the needs of lower-income residents and families that would otherwise be unsheltered.
“There’s no cost to the residents of Encinitas from this program, just all benefit,” Mosca said. “With inflation on the rise and more and more people not being able to afford gas and other things, you have a lot of people, especially seniors sleeping in their cars, so this program has not faded in the necessity; in fact, it’s only increased in need.”
Members of the public weighed in at Wednesday’s meeting, with many voicing strong support for the program’s extension.
“[The Safe Parking Program] has been quite successful in its new location,” said resident Joshua Lazerson. “Absent the generation of fake news, there is no claim that the program is anything but a success. Please approve the Safe Parking Program and take other steps towards making our community a place of common acts of decency and equity.”
“I support a proposed extension of the contract between Jewish Family Services and the city,” said Bob Kent, founder of Keys4Homes. “We have a housing affordability crisis regionally and in Encinitas. Now more than ever, having a safe, reliable place to sleep at night is critically important for those individuals and families living in vehicles, many of whom are experiencing homelessness for the first time and are working, including children and so many seniors. The Safe Parking Program is truly the last rung of homelessness prevention.”
Mali Woods-Drake, founder of Encinitas4Equality, said the program has been an unqualified success and described criticisms as misguided and emanating from a minority of residents.
“Unfortunately, many of those on the side in favor of the parking lot have chosen to stay silent because of the attacks they’ll receive or have seen others receive, while those who oppose it are the same voices over and over again,” Woods-Drake said. “It seems like a moot point as the council will likely pass this program for another three years unanimously, and rightfully so. Whether at Leichtag or the Senior Center, it’s a good, compassionate, temporary approach that serves a community very much in need. Those who oppose are fear mongering and have zero factual evidence that the Safe Parking Program creates more homelessness in Encinitas or has caused any harm.”
However, many residents expressed concerns about the program’s extension. A significant objection raised was the notion the program has met the needs of out-of-town transients over the needs of homeless residents.
Resident Steve Gherkin asked the council to consider making the program more focused on helping residents.
“The staff report says that just 3% of the participants are from Encinitas. This is a significant change in the promised participation in the Safe Parking Program, where originally 25% of the participants were described as being from Encinitas,” Gherkin said. “Will the council please address how…the vast majority of residents are not even regional or from North County San Diego. How is that consistent with the Encinitas Homeless Action Plan?”
Resident Christie Dean echoed Gherkin’s sentiments.
“The thing that’s frustrating is that with the data we’ve had, there have only been 38 families from Encinitas who have been helped out of 154,” Dean said. “I feel like Encinitas is a wonderful community, and we could have helped our own much better without welcoming so many additional problems. We really don’t have the resources or mental health facilities for these people, and in fact, it seems like we’re enabling these situations to continue by ‘Band-Aiding’ the problem.”
Dean feels the program has been counterproductive in solving citywide homelessness by attracting more people from out of town who don’t have any connections to the community.
“You’re making Encinitas a magnet for illicit behavior, and it’s affecting our community character,” Dean said. “It feels like we’re starting to become a mini-Venice Beach; we’re heading in that direction. Safety is a big deal, and we don’t know who all these people are walking around, and I’ve seen several times that some of them are unmonitored sex offenders, you just never know.”
“This program has been a big draw for people who are not Encinitas residents,” said resident Natalie Settoon. “It was sold to us that the bulk of these clients would be Encinitas residents. Now it turns out that only 38 Encinitans have been helped in a period of two years, and the largest portion has been people outside of Encinitas, outside of North County, outside of the state, this is just not a local project.”
Councilman Tony Kranz dismissed this criticism, arguing that, if anything, the program was proof that other municipalities in North County should adopt similar initiatives to take the pressure off the city as the only locale with a Safe Parking Program for its unhoused population.
“Encinitas residents are welcome here, and so are other people in the region; that’s how the program is set up,” Kranz said. “What would be nice is if other jurisdictions in the region started their own Safe Parking programs so that everyone in North County didn’t have to drive to Encinitas to live in their cars safely. Other cities joining in this effort to provide that option for people who are unhoused and living in their cars would be good for the entire region.”
Another concern residents expressed is the project’s proximity to Oak Crest Middle School, located a quarter-mile south of the Community and Senior Center.
“We’re particularly opposed to the location being next to a school and a Boys and Girls Club,” said Settoon. “It’s just so close to the school — I mean, it takes one second for a child to be taken advantage of by someone, and that can be a lifetime of consequences for a child being mistreated.”
“They never disclosed that they were going to aggressively market our community, where we’ve raised our children, where we live, to America’s transients,” said mayoral candidate Jeff Morris. “They have filled our entire community, our parks, and our streets with drug addicts and criminals. Countless residents, children, and homeless have been harmed as a result of JFS’ action.”
According to Lt. Chris Lawrence, of the North Coastal Sheriff’s Station, claims of criminal activity emanating from the Safe Parking location are wholly unfounded.
“We’ve had zero crime reports generated by this location and zero arrests made here since its inception in 2020,” Lawrence said. “We have had three to five calls for service at that location; most of them were illegal lodging calls. Overall, the city staff report on this is very accurate; these people are senior citizens and single mothers; these are people staying here who have legitimate needs and are not people who the public needs to worry about, from what we’ve seen so far.”
Former Mayor Jerome Stocks expressed dismay over the project’s location, asserting that the county, rather than the city, should be the entity approving the Safe Parking Program.
“This is not a good project for Encinitas, and even if one disagrees with that conclusion, this is not a good location (being near multiple schools and pre-schools and far from employment centers, government social service agencies, public transit or the freeway) for such a project,” Stocks said. “Encinitas lacks the resources to provide meaningful services to people with these needs. Furthermore, The county handles health and human resources and social safety net programs on behalf of the state — the city of Encinitas has no such authority or ability. The county should therefore house something like this on county property near county offices where proper services can be provided.”
Kranz said that such criticisms ignore the evidence that the initiative has been an unqualified success.
“It’s been tried and proven to be successful, and the numbers bear out that success,” Kranz said. “I voted the way I did because this is a valuable program helping people. There are no indications of any additional safety risk related to this program whatsoever.”