MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 4th of April, 2023.
Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.
First up, homelessness in California and a Christian mayor’s fight to solve it. Bill Wells has been the Mayor of El Cajon since 2013. It’s a small city of around 100,000 people in San Diego County. Back in March, he announced his candidacy for the state congressional district where El Cajon is located.
REICHARD: Before the pandemic, Wells was making progress in fighting homelessness. He partnered up with treatment-based shelters and other programs.
But last year, he noticed a problem. The county had started a lodging voucher program without his knowledge, and that led to an an influx of homeless taking advantage of it.
What the program did was to place homeless men and women in city motels with very little vetting, and back in March that led to criminal acts.
Now, a quick warning to parents: one kind of crime in particular I plan to ask about. I’ll wait until my third question to ask it, just to give you time.
Alright, with that background, I’ll welcome the Mayor of El Cajon, Bill Wells. Good morning, Mr. Mayor.
BILL WELLS: Hi, Mary.
REICHARD: How did you learn about the voucher program, and who facilitates it?
WELLS: Well, we found out that there are a lot more homeless faces on the streets. You know, when you've done a good job of trying to get as many people on the streets as you possibly can, the consequence of that is that we've reached out to everybody on the streets, somewhere between a dozen and fifteen times. And because of that, our police officers seem to know everybody on the streets, usually by name and face. And so when we start seeing new people on the streets, it raises some alarm bells. Where are they coming from? Well, you know, what we found out was, the county, without talking to us about it, had initiated a homeless voucher program, where they take people off the streets throughout San Diego County, they brought them into our city and they gave them a hotel voucher sometimes for up to two years. And what this brought, what we were afraid it would bring was a lot of criminality and a lot of problems, drug problems, assault problems, sex trafficking problems, and all these this came to pass as a result. So that's kind of where we're at today.
REICHARD: Okay, so based on what you learned, was the program actually helping the people it claims to help? If not, what effect on El Cajon?
WELLS: Well, helping is a big question. I mean, it really comes out of this philosophy of the housing first model. And the housing first model says that homelessness is a result of lack of money, lack of housing, and then all you have to do is build houses and get people off the street. And then the problem’s really solved. They're just regular folks that you know, down on their luck a little bit and you give them a step up, and they're going to, they're going to work hard, they're going to go out and interview for jobs, get some job training, and they're going to, you know, they're gonna get off the streets, or they're going to be great. Unfortunately, that's not the reality. And I can tell you as working in mental health, all my adult life since the 80s, I have a doctorate in psychology, I also have an RN, that most of homelessness has to do with drug and alcohol addiction problems, some mental health problems mixed in there, and some criminality problems mixed in there too, especially since they started closing the prisons of California. And what we found out was that even though our community only represents about 3% of the San Diego County, in this program, we were carrying 55% of the burden of this program, meaning most of the people in this program were in our little city. So we had 10 different hotels in this program, whereas San Diego city, which is 13 times larger than us, had two. And so we went back, I think rightfully, and said, you know, why is this just us? Why are you bringing them out to us? Most of these people, we looked at 100 people that were in the program, only one was from our city, the rest of them are from outside of the area. And they don't like that you ask that question, and that kind of set up the animosity.
REICHARD: Two weeks ago, you did call an emergency city council meeting after a violent incident in one of the motels. What happened at that meeting and what do you plan to do about the program?
WELLS: Well, I need to go back just a little bit further. So when we found out that this voucher program was happening, I called foul and said, no, we're going to use our conditional use permit process to not let this happen. Because what's going to happen is El Cajon is going to become the homeless dumping ground for San Diego County. And they then went to the Attorney General of California, and they filed a cease and desist order with us, so that we can't use our laws to even mitigate the problem. At that time, I said, Look, somebody's gonna get really hurt as a result of this. This is, we're not playing around with this. This is serious stuff. And they kind of laughed at me and told me I was a bigot and hateful and, you know, all the playbook. So what happened here was that two of the people in this program were registered sex offenders. Now, we have been told way back, that there'll never be a sex offender in this program, that's through a whole different kind of thing. But sure enough, these two men were sex offenders. And they had got caught having sex with teenage girls in their hotel rooms. And they admitted to having done this multiple times over the week before. So we don't even know how many victims there are. And I think most people just found this was just a bridge too far. So we went to the city council, we asked them to disregard the cease and desist letter from the state of California and to look at the process of ending this program, even though they're saying it's against the law to end it. That's kind of where we are in the process doing right now.
REICHARD: If the state takes your advice and replaces the voucher program with something else, what would you recommend that would address the problem of homeless men and women in your town and protect your people?
WELLS: Well, you know, that's a major problem. So people ask me, Can we solve homelessness? And the answer is yes. But it would take a lot of effort, a lot of political will. For 25 years now, the state has lived and died by this concept that homeless people are just like you and me. They're just regular folks who are down on their luck. And we know from mountains of data, and almost $10 billion spent on this program, that the problem is worse today than it was before we started spending any of this $10 billion. So it's gonna be a really hard lift for the state of California to admit they've just been 100% wrong about their approach to homelessness, and that their problems are destroying cities, they're getting people killed. And they've got to abandon that and start a new program, which would include lots of treatment. But if you refuse treatment, then some kind of incarceration, whether it be a state hospital or a prison, because you're not allowed to sleep on the streets.
REICHARD: Bill Wells is mayor of El Cajon, California. Bill, thank you for your time today.
WELLS: Thank you.
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