Town leaders look for ways to help homeless find shelter

At a May 18 public workshop on homelessness in La Jolla, a new program called StreetSmart was unveiled. It will ask Village restaurant and hotel guests to voluntarily donate $1 during their stay to fund homeless services.

The new voluntary homeless fund, brainchild of local business improvement district Promote La Jolla, will begin in July. It is modeled on a similar program run successfully in London.

“Merchants have become concerned about the increased presence of homelessness,” said workshop chair Gail Forbes, who introduced a panel of homeless service providers.

The panel includes Officer Rick Schnell of the San Diego Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team, Stewart Payne of the Clean & Safe program in downtown San Diego, Hannah Cohen of the United Way, Deputy City Attorney Regan Savalla and Joanne Cobb with Foundation For Women.

Promote La Jolla President Deborah Marengo said homelessness is becoming a bigger problem here.

“We’ve had situations where homeless people have actually broken into The Grande Colonial and La Valencia hotels and were living in the rooms for a couple of days before anyone found out,” she said. “Now problems are escalating to where we’re having more crime. It’s important for the community to come together, be aware, do something.”

A number of La Jolla residents, like Michelle Addington who lives on Eads Avenue, agreed that homeless problems are intensifying.

“What is most disturbing is if you go to the Village to shop in Girard on a Saturday morning,” she said. “People will be opening their hands asking for spare change. Sometimes it gets to be five or six people on the same street. The Village’s image is being damaged by that.”

Addington said some homeless people are prone to fits of anger and that they verbally abuse passers-by. She’s also seen intoxicated homeless people sleeping in bushes or loitering in back alleys.

“I feel unsafe some of the time,” she said. “I should feel safe in La Jolla.”

Attorney Ed Carnot said he has seen a rapid deterioration in the quality of life in La Jolla, and that this has accompanied an increase in the homeless population. He said the redemption center near Vons is overrun by the homeless and the problems they bring.

“They hang out,” he said, “leave trash. Shopping carts are disappearing. The redemption center is a center of drinking. It seems like benign neglect here. I want an even-handed enforcement of the law.”

Dianne Brittingham, executive director of La Jolla Rec Center, said homelessness has been a problem at the public facility the entire 13 years she’s worked there.

“Thirteen years ago, we used to have showers,” she said, “and we had 20 or 30 homeless doing their laundry then, lining them up (outside). We had to close the showers. Now we have them in the back. I don’t want them doing anything around the children, and we have 200 or 300 of them around here every day.”

David and Mary Cutchin live in the Village and agree homelessness is becoming a more visible problem.

“In a way, the homeless serve a real purpose, disturbing as they might be,” said David Cutchin, “and that is to remind us that a lot of people in this country are really very poor, and that there are a lot of people working who can’t make enough money to support their families.”

Sherri Lightner, chair of La Jolla Shores Association, feels intimidated by the growing number of panhandlers in the street. She said she’s also had embarrassing moments trying to explain away incidences of public urination during broad daylight hours while on walks in La Jolla Shores.

Deputy City Attorney Regan Savalla said a system of subtle legal coercion is used to persuade people to seek rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

“Every time a homeless person comes in front of a judge,” she said, “they’re given the option for treatment. And every time they appear, the length of their custody goes up from 30 days to 60 to 90. They resist, but when they’re looking at 180 days of custody, a lot of them will then say, ‘OK, I’ll try the treatment.’ We’re alway able to find placement, even with all their issues.”

A follow-up workshop on homeless issues in La Jolla is planned, but a date has not yet been set.