East county homelessness

County Steps Up Outreach Services at Growing Homeless Encampments in East County

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There are outreach efforts underway in the East County aimed at offering services to the homeless people living in a growing number of visible encampments in the area.

“I think the county is actually doing a pretty good job, with coming out here and offering water, hygiene, you know,” said Dennis Fortney.

Fortney is a former construction worker who says he hurt his back while on the job. He says he’s been homeless for eight years, and now lives in a tent with his girlfriend at an encampment on N. Magnolia Avenue in El Cajon.

The encampment has grown significantly in recent weeks, with at least 80 people living in about 35 tents and various tarps. Most are living in unsanitary conditions surrounded by the clutter of personal belongings.

On Wednesday, Fortney took advantage of outreach services being provided by the County Health & Human Services Agency’s Office of Homeless Solutions. Homeless were provided hygiene kits that included water and hand sanitizer.

The Magnolia Avenue encampment, which is located on a small, unincorporated stretch in El Cajon, has been monitored since 2018, according to a county spokesperson.

“A number of events and factors have contributed to the increase of people and large camps on site, including environmental changes along streets within the City of El Cajon that moved people from city limits, high demand for temporary housing vouchers and the impacts of the pandemic,” said Sarah Sweeney, communications officer with the HHSA.

In an email to NBC 7, Sweeney said the county outreach services will be offered at the site Monday thru Friday for the next two weeks to address the recent increase in population and connect individuals to services.

But while Fortney was quick to accept hygiene kits, he was less than willing to accept shelter services, saying he was content living at the encampment with his girlfriend.

It underscores the challenge of providing shelter to many currently living on the streets.

“Level of freedom. I’m sure you’re stretched on paying your rent, your car note, your credit cards. I don’t have any of those worries,” said Fortney.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday in Lakeside, there was a so-called "shower event,' which allowed unsheltered to bathe and pick up free clothing and food.

The event was organized by Judy Scheuer whose non-profit Hope for the Homeless targets unsheltered individuals in Lakeside.

“It gives them a bit of dignity, it gives them hope that there’s going to be some changes, and it gives them something to eat and a little more stability,” said Scheuer.

Dave Rowbury, who’s known in the area as "Lakeside Dave," was one of the people to take advantage of a hot shower set up by the non-profit group Think Dignity, which provided a dual-shower trailer to accommodate two people at a time.

“The shower was invigorating, brought me back up to human standards, I like that. The camaraderie, the clothing, the good food, and people that actually care. You know, very calming,” said Rowbury.

There are 4,058 unsheltered people in San Diego County based on last month’s point in time homeless count, according to preliminary data from the Regional Task Force on Homelessness. That’s only a slight increase from the 3,971 in the count in 2020.

Many homeless advocates are critical of the count’s accuracy.

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