Motel violence showcases failures of homeless voucher program
California officials continue to resist the El Cajon mayor’s pleas to end it
On Sunday morning, the El Cajon, Calif., chief of police and the city manager asked Mayor Bill Wells to come in for an urgent meeting. They informed him that two homeless men were suspected of sexually assaulting an underage girl at a local Motel 6. The motel is one of eight in the city participating in San Diego County’s Regional Homeless Assistance Program, which gives homeless people vouchers for hotel rooms.
According to city officials, an employee with People Assisting The Homeless (PATH), the organization paying for the room, called the El Cajon Police Department to report suspicious circumstances involving a client. Lawrence Cantrell, 34, is a convicted felon who had been staying at the motel for the past five to six days after being kicked out of a different motel in San Diego for causing a disturbance, according to city officials.
Cantrell allegedly admitted to a PATH employee and then to El Cajon police that he had sexual contact with a girl he believed was a minor at the hotel. He also told police that another participant in the hotel voucher program, 70-year-old Michael Inman, brought the girl to the room and videoed the encounter. El Cajon authorities said they seized Cantrell’s phone and confirmed the video existed. Both men are registered sex offenders, and the chief of police informed Wells that Cantrell is on parole and wears an ankle monitor. In connection with the Motel 6 incident, police arrested Cantrell on drug charges, while Inman was arrested on a parole violation and possession of child pornography. Detectives are searching for the girl in the video and continuing the investigation into the possible sexual assault.
The incident is one of numerous crimes reported in connection with the hotel voucher program, which is based on the “Housing First” model, a plan to combat homelessness that prioritizes moving individuals into temporary and permanent housing as quickly as possible.
In December, a homeless man sold his motel voucher to at least six teens, according to El Cajon City Manager Graham Mitchell. During a raucous party, one of the teens shot an underage girl in the head, leaving her with severe brain damage. On Monday morning, police arrested another person who wasn’t officially on the voucher program for selling methamphetamines.
Wells and other El Cajon leaders officials have publicly clashed with progressive county and state leaders over the hotel voucher program––and that battle is far from over. (See Wells’ essay “Hotel California.”) The conflict began last September when local leaders noticed a sudden influx of hundreds of homeless people wandering the streets of El Cajon and loitering outside two-star travel hotels. Prior to this, under Wells’ leadership, the city had addressed its homeless problem by partnering with various groups to establish treatment-based shelters and other programs.
After making inquiries, El Cajon authorities learned the San Diego County Board of Supervisors started a hotel voucher program without their knowledge. Wells said the county shuttled a disproportionate number of its homeless people into El Cajon––with little vetting. He stated El Cajon represents only 3 percent of the county’s population but shoulders 45 percent of the hotel voucher program.
The San Diego Board of Supervisors, along with the Health and Human Services Agency, launched the Regional Homeless Assistance Program in January 2020. The program has the capacity to house over 250 households in 22 hotels. It has served more than 1,400 people since it began in 2020. But over half of its clients were never placed in permanent housing, often because of criminal activity, violence, or drug use.
Wells said the areas around El Cajon hotels have deteriorated into crime scenes. During one recent three-day stretch, city police arrested 89 voucher recipients for outstanding felony warrants, according to Wells. He publicly objected to the county’s voucher plan at a news conference and sent letters to local hotel operators demanding they comply with their conditional use permits. Those actions prompted a phone call from state Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office threatening legal action and demanding the city retract its letters to the hotels.
“California has been clear that they would destroy us if we use any of our laws to try to mitigate this,” Wells said. In a letter to the mayor and city council members last September, the state Department of Justice vowed to sue the city, sayings El Cajon had violated the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“This is just more evidence that the Housing First model doesn’t really do anything to change that kind of behavior. It’s just sweeping dirt under the rug. And you know, the people that really pay the price are the people that live in these cities,” said Wells.
California is the only state to pass a law codifying Housing First, which has come under criticism for neglecting the root issues that cause homelessness. Under the model, programs cannot institute requirements such as sober living, workforce development, or mandatory education. Between 2016 and 2019, unsheltered homelessness rose 47.1 percent in California even as the state increased permanent housing units by 33 percent and overall homeless aid funds by 101 percent. The state is home to 50 percent of the United States’ unsheltered homeless population.
“It’s such a glaring and important picture as to the failures of Housing First,” said Michele Steeb, a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. California Republicans asked Steeb to speak to the legislature’s Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee about a month ago. But Democratic lawmakers blocked her from testifying. “The problem is that California is all-in,” she said, “They won’t hear any other perspectives.”
Steeb says putting addicts and the mentally ill into motel rooms with no accountability isn’t compassion. “They’re not getting the help they need,” she said. “They are suffering and their community is suffering.”
Ivan Andujar is the CEO of the East County Transitional Living Center, a nonprofit ministry serving the homeless in El Cajon. Unlike the county hotel voucher program, men and women participating in the center’s Family Restoration Ministry, discipleship program, or emergency shelter are asked to leave or restart the program if they use drugs or alcohol.
Andujar says the no-strings-attached voucher program is another example of the state’s failed harm reduction and Housing First models. “It’s enabling [the homeless] to continue in the habits that got them into the situation in the first place,” he said. The voucher program fills rooms and lines the pockets of motel owners, but doesn’t change the trajectory of those who are chronically homeless, he said: “It’s like the Wild West, and there’s no way to monitor what they’re doing behind those closed doors.”
Wells called an emergency city council meeting for Tuesday to decide whether they should suspend the program altogether: “We’re going to demand that the program be suspended until we get a better handle on who's being put in the city, and what the safeguards to the citizens are going to be.”
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