Stella Maris Academy reflects on challenges, safety enhancements in light of homeless presence in La Jolla

Police responded to an altercation between a suspect and Pat Mulcahy outside Stella Maris Academy in La Jolla on Oct. 18.
Police responded to an altercation between a suspect and the Rev. Pat Mulcahy outside Stella Maris Academy in La Jolla on Oct. 18.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

A recent incident involving a homeless man attacking and cutting the hand of the Rev. Pat Mulcahy of Stella Maris Academy in La Jolla may have shocked the community, but for the school, it is the latest in a string of issues with the presence of homeless people near the campus.

The morning of Oct. 18, Northern Division police Sgt. Ross Bainbridge said a homeless man was asked to leave the Stella Maris parking lot “and he responded to that by attacking [Mulcahy] with a box cutter and a half pair of scissors,” cutting Mulcahy’s hand. The man soon fled toward Park Row, where he was apprehended and arrested. Mulcahy called the injury superficial and said he was grateful no one was seriously hurt during the event. He said he hopes the assailant “gets the help he needs.”

Northern Division Capt. Erwin Manansala said Oct. 20 the suspect is “still in custody. We plan on pursuing felony charges against him and are working with the [District Attorney’s] office to bring that individual to justice.”

He added that “public safety is a priority for not just La Jolla, but the school and the church area as well,” referring to Stella Maris and the adjacent Mary, Star of the Sea.

Stella Maris, at 7654 Herschel Ave., is the parochial school for Mary, Star of the Sea, serving students in transitional kindergarten through eighth grade.

While Stella Maris principal Francie Moss said the incident was “not something we see” and was out of the ordinary, there have been encounters with homeless people being present near the school and screaming obscenities and confronting parents.

“We have people that keep coming around; there is one individual [against whom] we have a three-year restraining order because he yells and screams expletives and chased our parents, but he never tried to harm our children. No one has ever tried to get into the gates,” she said.

Accordingly, Moss said safety measures have been gradually implemented over the last year, costing the school almost $100,000 and taking up “70 percent of my time” this year.

“We reinforced our iron fencing to make our walls higher [and replaced] play yard gates so they are stronger. You have to be buzzed in to access our gates and we updated the mechanics, and we have cameras surrounding the campus,” she said. “We also have a program called Parents on Patrol, which brings in volunteers that walk around the school in the 15 minutes before school to make sure sketchy people aren’t around. It’s just to have another set of eyes while the gates are open. We also hired a private security guard for when we are at mass. He is there from the time the children walk to mass, while they are in mass and when they walk back; and he walks the alley [behind the school], which is a real problem area.”

Moss acknowledged “people are really concerned” but said, “The kids aren’t fazed by this because we try to keep it away from them. We don’t want them to worry. I take this very seriously … parents know that their children are safe.”

Stella Maris Academy occupies three corners at the intersection of Herschel Avenue and Kline Street in La Jolla.
Stella Maris Academy occupies three corners at the intersection of Herschel Avenue and Kline Street in La Jolla.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

One parent of two Stella Maris students — who asked that her name be withheld out of concern for the safety of her children — agreed that “there is a problem” and said the people that are near the area are “getting more aggressive” but that she feels safe sending her children to school.

“Everyone is concerned and wants to make sure the children are safe,” she said. “I don’t feel my kids are unsafe there, because there is a lot that has been done in terms of safety, but the more people coming into La Jolla and the increase in aggression, that is the concerning part.”

While some concerned parents have blamed — particularly through social media posts — the increase in homeless people frequenting the area to the nearby La Jolla Recovery, the facility only takes private insurance and typically works with 18- to 24-year-old clients. An employee told La Jolla Light they do not work with the homeless population.

Instead, Moss attributes the presence of homeless people to the proximity to a bus stop and the reputation that churches can provide services to those in need.

“Churches tend to be a magnet [for homeless people],” she said. “We don’t provide meals, but churches often will, so many stop there. So being near the church and being in the business area of The Village is why we’re seeing [an increase in the presence of homeless people].”

However, she notes that it is not the presence of homeless people that concerns her, but the safety of her students should those in the area become violent.

“We’re not concerned when there are homeless people in the area,” she said. “When they keep walking, it is fine, but when they start harassing our parents or staff, then it becomes a problem. We want them to get the help they need. But when it gets to the point that someone who has been in the area for 10 years is still around and the behavior is escalating, it becomes a concern. We want our children to be empathetic to those that are struggling.”

Moss said the school has “a good rapport” with the San Diego police officers of Northern Division, which includes La Jolla.

Joanne Standlee, executive director and co-founder of nonprofit organization Housing 4 the Homeless said she understands the parents’ concerns, but that education on the issue would be beneficial.

“Part of why we have an influx in La Jolla is the sweep downtown,” she said. “The people living on the streets are having their belongings being thrown away; they are being cited and told to leave. They are behaving rationally given their circumstances. Would you rather go to jail or go to another community? They are being forced to leave downtown, so they hop on the trolley and come here.”

Standlee added, “I understand the parents having this reaction, but everyone has this impression that there are all these shelter beds that people can get to, but it can be challenging to get them there. They have to be referred to area shelters, so if we want to get someone into a shelter bed, we have to find someone from [San Diego] County, the [Homeless Outreach] Team or PATH to refer them. ... It keeps coming back to the fact that we do not have enough mental health and homelessness resources.”

She said, “We don’t want people on the street; we don’t make excuses for them being there. No one chooses to live that way. All homeless people are not dangerous, but there is a lot of maladaptive behavior for those that live on the street.”

If people are alarmed by the recent attack on Mulcahy, Standlee said “they need to understand why it is happening and not automatically blame the victim. We need to fundamentally change our priorities when it comes to mental health.”

A forum on homelessness will be held at the next La Jolla Town Council meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, at the La Jolla Recreation Center, 615 Prospect St.

“The trustees came through loud and clear that homelessness is an issue in La Jolla and there are numerous concerns,” said Town Council President Jerri Hunt. “This is a complex issue as homelessness is often not well defined nor often understood. There are many sides of homelessness regarding these ongoing challenges. Concerns include safety, mental health issues, families that need a helping hand, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as what resources are in place to address these issues.”

— La Jolla Light staff writer Elisabeth Frausto contributed to this report. ◆