ESSAY | As Golden State progressives incentivize homelessness, a Christian mayor fights back
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It was a Friday afternoon, and I was driving through the city of El Cajon, Calif., where I am the mayor. I was lost in my music playlist when I was jolted back to reality by a phone call. My phone screen told me it was the worst kind of call—one from my city attorney.
The attorney, Morgan Foley, is a hardened legal veteran, but even he seemed a bit shaken. He had just received a call from the office of the attorney general of California, Rob Bonta. The AG’s staff told Morgan that we were about to receive a cease-and-desist letter from Bonta himself.
I knew immediately what the issue was: homelessness. Bonta and his allies on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors want to enable it. I don’t.
El Cajon (pronounced “el ka-HONE”) is a medium-sized city in the metro San Diego area. When I was elected mayor in 2008, downtown El Cajon and a vast grid of surrounding blocks were a hotbed of crime, urban blight, and homelessness. In my pre-political life I had worked in mental health, first as a clinician with a nursing degree and then as a doctor of clinical psychology. Over a career of supervising mental health teams in hospital emergency room settings, I’d had a lot of experience ministering to and caring for homeless people.
I brought that with me when I took office. We hired a new city manager, rolled up our sleeves, and got to work. Partnering with city officials, social services, law enforcement, the business community, and nonprofits, we developed new homeless shelters and programs. We enlisted the city’s pastors to pray, and much to the ridicule of many, we prayed with them. By 2020, any homeless person who would agree to get help had gotten it. Many became what are called “housed homeless,” but they were off the streets and being cared for. Meanwhile, the streets themselves were safer and more welcoming for all residents.
Then came September 2022. We noticed a new and sudden influx of homeless people to our city—not just on the streets but taking over El Cajon hotels. I asked our police department to make some friendly inquiries with these folks, to find out where they’d come from. As it turned out, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, without consulting us, had launched a hotel voucher program that quickly overwhelmed our two-star travel-lodge type properties, turning every one of them into a homeless encampment.
I objected. At first quietly and via networking, then loudly and on television. And that last piece is what triggered the cease-and-desist phone call from Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office. Cease and desist, you may know, can be a fancy legal way of saying sit down and shut up. And that was exactly Bonta’s message: If I continued to fight the county to try to restore order in our streets and hotels, then the full weight of California’s top law enforcement agent, in the most populous state in the Union—the fifth-largest economy in the world—would come down directly on me and our city. In my mind’s eye, I saw Goliath in full battle array and started looking for five smooth stones.
Decades ago, California was the destination of dreams. When my father and countless others stopped here for a brief stay in San Diego on their way to fight in the South Pacific, Korea, or Vietnam, they found warm weather, beautiful new cities and suburbs, and a natural paradise that led down through the unspoiled pine forests of the High Sierra to the glistening Pacific.
Today, though, the state is overpriced, overtaxed, and in many places riddled with crime and filth. Many large and medium-sized cities have become nearly uninhabitable—overrun by unchecked encampments of makeshift tents and ramshackle lean-tos. Drug zombies, criminals, and untreated psychotics roam the ruins and rule the places that were once the domain of the rich and powerful. The latter have not abandoned their castles of commerce, but now quickly run from car to guarded lobby, deftly dodging feces, vomit, and vermin.
Prostitution, rape, and the use and sale of drugs unfold in plain sight. Disheveled bodies lie in heaps on the streets. This is now so common that police rarely have spare resources to investigate whether these bodies are still alive.
How did we get here? Let’s start with a few basic facts. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development tells us there are currently 171,521 homeless people on the streets of California. To put matters in perspective, the next closest state is New York with 74,000. Some argue California is the most populous state and the numbers reflect that. But how then can you explain second-place Texas, with just 24,000 homeless?
Well, some say, climate is the determining factor. By this logic, Arizona should be a close second, but it falls far behind California with some 14,000 homeless people, and New Mexico with about 3,000. Even Hawaii, the most meteorologically idyllic state in the union, has just 6,000 homeless.
The truth is, California is unique in the nation in that it has crafted a network of laws and policies that are so permissive they actually encourage homelessness. Meanwhile, generous social benefits enable a lifestyle of addiction, even as ill-conceived laws discourage or prevent most standard enforcement techniques cities have historically used to mitigate the practice of living on the streets. The result: People from all over the country—and the world, actually—come here specifically to be homeless. California’s population accounts for 12 percent of the U.S. total of 334 million, but the state hosts 51 percent of the homeless.
As mayor, I worked with our City Council to tackle the problem using an approach different than the big, liberal cities. We strove to provide a modern, treatment-based network of therapeutic options, while at the same time enforcing a policy that prohibits camping on the streets. We can do this because we have three homeless shelters and as such are shielded from the 2018 Boise ruling, which says you cannot prevent street camping unless you have a bed to offer. We have the beds. In fact, we spend more money per capita on homeless services than any other municipality in the region.
When we first learned about the new hotel voucher program, city manager Graham Mitchell went to assess the situation. What he found was first disturbing—then horrifying. Voucher recipients told Graham that county sheriff’s deputies, and even county staff members, had dropped them off at the hotels. At one property, a drug dealer threatened to kill Graham if he didn’t leave.
After that, I went to see for myself. I found parking lots filled with trash and needles. Groups of young men, and some women, wandering in front of the hotels. Many appeared psychotic, arguing with lampposts or themselves. Drug dealers haunted the hotel entrances, shooting daggers with their eyes.
Prior to this development, El Cajon police knew the names and faces of most homeless people on our streets. That’s because each person is approached up to a dozen times and offered supportive housing. Now, there were hundreds of new faces. The county had not discussed with us any of their plans. When pressed, officials refused to give any information. In frustration, I called a press conference to apply public pressure over this unfair and dangerous practice. I pointed out that though my city represents only 3 percent of the county’s population, it was shouldering 45 percent of this hotel voucher program. I also noted that El Cajon police arrested 89 voucher recipients in just three days, most for outstanding felony warrants.
On the advice of my city attorney, we sent letters to the hotel operators demanding they comply with their conditional use permits. In our interpretation, each had violated theirs when they brought in so many homeless that they ceased to be hotels and became instead de facto homeless shelters.
Homelessness in California used to revolve mainly around addicts and the untreated mentally ill. But in 2011, the state Legislature added a new toxin: crime.
Assembly Bill 109 and, in 2016, Proposition 57 sought to ease prison overcrowding in California by simply deciding that many crimes were no longer punishable by incarceration. More than 70 crimes were redefined as “less serious” or “non-violent.” This includes the rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person, sex trafficking, lewd acts with a minor of 15 years old and above, hostage-taking, assault with a deadly weapon, domestic violence resulting in injury, and many others.
Then, prisons began closing—two in the past two years. After that, El Cajon saw a 35 percent spike in homelessness. Sacramento politicians claim no correlation, but that defies logic. In San Diego County alone, 7,619 probationers were released into the county, with 1,077 being homeless upon release. Approximately 1 in 10 of the homeless in our region were once prisoners on early release.
Meanwhile, in 2014 voters approved Proposition 47, converting a whole menu of crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, including shoplifting of items less than $950. Recently, a group of 7-Eleven owners crowded into my office complaining that the homeless now steal from them with impunity—and with no fear of the police.
Proposition 47 also makes personal use of most drugs a minor offense, subject to a ticket or more likely no enforcement. In 2017, the legislature passed Senate Bill 180, which limits law enforcement’s ability to send chronic drug abusers back to prison. And most of those not confined will refuse any rehabilitative offer to get them off the streets. I know this not just statistically, but from personal experience.
You might be surprised to know that mayoring is a part-time job. Like most mayors I lead a dual life. In addition to helping to govern a city, I own a healthcare company that specializes in psychiatric and psychological treatment. From 1994 to 2016, I worked in the emergency department at Paradise Valley Hospital. It’s a facility in south San Diego County so gritty that cops and paramedics call it Death Valley Hospital.
One morning at about 3 a.m., I was summoned to the ER where a disheveled homeless woman was waiting for me, along with two grumpy cops. The cops explained that a Good Samaritan called in to report an older woman sleeping under a bridge in the rain. I noticed the woman had only one leg, having lost the other just below the knee—an amputation due to poorly managed diabetes.
I spoke gently to her. Looked her in the eyes and told her I wanted to help. The woman made it clear she had no interest in help. I ordered blood tests anyway. A few questions and a look at her liver function told me all I needed to know: She was getting all her calories from vodka.
I implored her to let me get her a bed. “I’ll put you on the medical floor until you get through the DTs,” I said. “After that, social workers will find you a place to stay.”
When she refused, I tried to coax her: “It’s cold and raining and you’re sick,” I said. I warned her she was going to die. The woman cursed me, then rolled out of the hospital on her Medicare-provided scooter, laughing and ranting as she went.
She’ll be back, I thought. And when she comes, we’ll go through it all again. I knew this because we got so many addicts and psych patients in the ER that we needed two clinicians on every shift. Like this woman, most of the homeless we saw were abusing themselves to the brink of death. Some wanted to be admitted for a brief stay. They’d get a bath, a few hot meals, and maybe some maintenance medications. After that, though, almost all heard the call of the streets—and their drugs of choice—and were back in the urban wild within a week.
This kind of thing still happens today. As a Christian, this saddens me deeply as I work to obey Scriptural admonitions to aid the poor: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:40).
But is enabling a life of addiction and psychosis, of hard living on rough streets, really helping? Or is it more compassionate to intervene, proactively if needed, when the poor and ill are unwilling to help themselves?
Magnolia Street showdown
Within a week of learning of the county’s voucher program, we also learned that El Cajon’s new hotel guests were selling drugs out of their tax-funded rooms. It was clear the county had no vetting process prior to shuttling their homeless to our town. The county protested that most were El Cajon natives. But further research, provided by the county itself, showed that only one person came from our city.
How many homeless were being housed in San Diego proper or in the rich coastal communities, I wondered? Why were they being shunted to the east—and specifically to one of the few conservative areas left in the county? An answer may relate directly to another homeless battle I had recently had with San Diego County supervisors—and had won: Magnolia Street.
Magnolia runs through El Cajon and then into an unincorporated area in the County of San Diego’s jurisdiction. It’s a commercial street with gas stations, machine shops, mom-and-pop restaurants, and other small businesses. Since El Cajon prohibits encampments, Magnolia Street was completely clean—until you reached the sign that says “Leaving El Cajon.” That sign marked a literal line of demarcation.
A few yards beyond it, a massive homeless encampment sprang up in February 2022. Tents, shopping carts, and makeshift huts littered the side of the road under a freeway overpass. Business owners along Magnolia had begun complaining of people urinating and defecating in front of their doors. The street rang with curses, screams, and fistfights. People were having sex in the open and, of course, selling and abusing drugs.
The camp was technically outside El Cajon city limits, which meant I was not its mayor. But Magnolia runs straight into our city, so we asked the county to clean up the property for the sake of those business owners just outside my jurisdiction. The county pushed back, citing the Boise decision as a reason for not getting involved.
My next step: I invited our local media out to take a look. I pointed out to reporters that there were zero encampments on the El Cajon side of that “Leaving El Cajon” sign. But on the county’s side, Magnolia looked like a war-torn third-world country. It was a striking dichotomy, a perfect real-time picture of conservative versus progressive policies. It also ignited a media firestorm. The public began to mobilize and put tremendous pressure on the county government.
Then, the first of two horrible incidents occurred.
A young high school girl with developmental disabilities was lured into the encampment. She was sexually assaulted, drugged, and kept in that altered mental state in a van while she was trafficked for sex. Then another young girl, this time not a minor but still a teenager, was found running naked from business to business begging for help. She cried hysterically that she’d been raped at the encampment. She later waffled on her story of assault, but security cameras did verify she was naked on the street.
The resulting press coverage and citizen protest finally forced the county to act. In late May 2022, trucks and crews descended on the apocalyptic scene, and just like that, Magnolia Street was clean again. The people of El Cajon felt it was a great victory—that is, until we found the county had cooked up what may be a secret weapon of retribution: the hotel voucher program.
The voucher program is not new. It is essentially an extension of the Housing First model developed by New York clinical community psychologist Sam Tsemberis in 1992. If homelessness is caused by lack of housing, the premise goes, we should simply give homeless people houses. Soon many private and public figures announced they could provide every chronically homeless person with permanent supportive housing, or PSH, and thus help end homelessness within a decade. Since then, all major cities have tried Housing First. All have failed miserably.
In San Francisco, each PSH unit can cost up to $750,000. In Los Angeles, voters passed a bond issue for more PSH units. The city said they would cost $140,000 each. Instead, they cost triple that, and some cost over $700,000. In many cities, landlords receive massive rents or use third-party for-profit maintenance companies to earn millions on properties for the homeless. In California, the only state to fully adopt the Housing First model, there has been, at great public cost, a 33 percent increase in permanent housing units for the homeless. That sounds great until you consider that California’s homeless population has risen by 33.8 percent overall, and by 47.1 percent in the unsheltered population.
How can we solve a problem if we fundamentally misunderstand its cause? Progressives suggest that the root causes of homelessness are lack of housing, people “down on their luck,” and high rents in a tough economy. Couple this with a strident devotion to the idea that any attempt to link homelessness with poor choices, addiction, or criminality is wrong, and you create a paradigm that ensures any attempt to help will always end in failure.
Here’s the latest failure: California Attorney General Rob Bonta demanded that we rescind our letters asking hotel operators to comply with their conditional use permits. Being committed to the rule of law and acknowledging that the attorney general is the ultimate legal authority in California, we obeyed.
A few days later, a new complaint: An attorney in Bonta’s office called my city attorney to complain that I had called Bonta a thug on TV. Our attorney was left with the impression that any similar language from me would mean serious trouble, which I felt was, well … thuggish. Following that, we received surprisingly aggressive demands for emails, phone calls, texts, and correspondence mentioning anything related to the controversy.
Then on Sept. 23, 2022, AG Bonta’s office threatened legal action. Bonta also posted a tweet touting his role in stopping us from having our hotels lower the number of homeless residents.
I’d like to tell you we will win this battle in the end. We have no doubt that El Cajon’s laws are constitutional, since they are basically the same as those in any other city in California. But when a state collapses into a one-party system, laws become malleable … fungible … open to interpretation by those in power.
Let this be a cautionary tale for other states that say, “It can’t happen here.” It most assuredly can.
—Bill Wells is a clinical psychologist and mayor of El Cajon, Calif. For more on this writer, see Backstory in this issue.
Total homeless population in California (2022)
- Data taken from a 2022 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report on homelessness
- In 2020, 51% of all homeless people in the United States were in California
Homelessness rate in California per 10,000 people (2020)
- California ranks behind the District of Columbia (90.4), New York (46.9), and Hawaii (45.6).
Total homeless population in San Diego County (2022)
- 10% increase since 2020, according to state point-in-time counts
Downtown San Diego monthly homeless count
- 2020 average: 656
- 2021 average: 961
- 2022 average: 1,485
—Data compiled by Elizabeth Russell
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