While hundreds of people celebrate Holiday Lights in downtown El Cajon on Saturday, hundreds of others were disobeying a recent city council ordinance to ban feeding the homeless, by doing just that—feeding them at Wells Park for the second weekend in the row. “We will be back in a month, while other organizations will come back every weekend,” said Dashiel MacTavish with Food Not Bombs San Diego, the non-profit who organized the protest.
While hundreds of people celebrate Holiday Lights in downtown El Cajon on Saturday, hundreds of others were disobeying a recent city council ordinance to ban feeding the homeless, by doing just that—feeding them at Wells Park for the second weekend in the row. “We will be back in a month, while other organizations will come back every weekend,” said Dashiel MacTavish with Food Not Bombs San Diego, the non-profit who organized the protest. More than a hundred people without homes were given warm Thanksgiving dinners, hygiene supplies, clothes and information on available resources by dozens of volunteers and sponsors from all over San Diego, with numerous other citizens in attendance in solidarity with this soft protest.
El Cajon Councilman Ben Kalasho, who voted for the ban, said that his vote doesn’t go against his party’s value the way the protesters have accused him. “Both parties care about poor people. Nobody wants to see anybody die. The last thing I want is a hepatitis outbreak because some 20 people think I am not being a good Democrat. That’s just stupid. I can see their point, I understand what they mean, but this is not a partisan thing.”
The East County Democratic Club who endorsed Kalasho begs to differ and is siding with the protesters. Kalasho said this ban helps curb the hepatitis A virus (HAV) outbreak and also “the amount of debris and trash that was left behind after these mass feedings. Wells Park had 10 feedings a month costing the city thousands of dollars to clean up.” Kalasho said one instance that made him vote for the ban was a “cleanup day” event he organized at Wells Park last spring where he was the only councilmember picking up needles and trash. The ordinance was a recommendation from Park and Recreation adopted by the city council in October, one year after patient zero was identified with HAV and presumably residing in El Cajon. Asked to provide the specific data that persuaded the council members to vote for the ban, such as, who are the “faith base groups” that left a mess behind, the exact number of people infected with HAV right now in El Cajon, Kalasho points to the county for specifics. “It’s really hard to have an accurate number,” and “some of these questions are like micromanaging questions and as city councilmen we macro-manage, not micromanage. We have the data, the data sealed the deal for me.”
A county map made public indicates that there are 56 cases of HAV in all of El Cajon making it the second largest population of HAV cases, second to the City of San Diego. Working with the county, the City of El Cajon has taken the following precautions in direct response to the outbreak:
Authorized the County to install handwashing stations at Prescott Promenade, outside the County library, an in conjunction with MTS at Trolley Stations.
El Cajon Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team accompanies the County of San Diego nurses routinely for in-the field Hepatitis A vaccinations.
Power washing and sanitizing sidewalks, curbs and benches in areas where homeless congregate.
Reached out to over 360 restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations and provided information about prevention measures
Ensured information about Hepatitis A is posted in public facilities inluding the library and recreation centers.
Contacted school districts with additional information.
Ensured that all City restrroms are being cleaned with effective Hepatitis A cleansers.
Requested MTS to power wash trolley station platforms.
Provided information about the outbreak, prevention tips, and a summary of the City's efforts to address Hepatitis A on the City's webpage and through its social media accounts.
Requested that the County translate all of it s Hepatitis A literature into Arabic.
The County of San Diego has conducted approximately 150 vaccination events and administered over 5,000 vaccines to individuals within the City of El Cajon thus far.MacTavish said, “There is no Hep A outbreak in El Cajon at all, but the city is using this to enforce an unjust ban” and urged people to sign the online petition for the city to reverse the ban.
What needs to happen for the ban to be lifted? Kalasho said, “We asked for, I asked to be briefed by the San Diego County Health and Services every quarter.” That places the next revision for February-March of next year, but the same institution is posting updates for the public every Tuesday. Even the County Board of Supervisors is “reviewing the need for continuing the emergency, declared on Sept. 1, every 14 days,” according to Tom Christensen, San Diego County communication officer, who also announced that “on Monday (Nov. 27), the Board extended the local hepatitis A health emergency for another two weeks amid continuing signs the outbreak is slowing down. Public health officials told the board in a presentation that here have been 10 cases or fewer reported each week for the past eight weeks. Since the outbreak began on Nov. 22, 2016, 561 cases have been reported, with 378 people requiring hospitalizations and 20 deaths.”
In the same public statement, Wilma Wooten, M.D., M.P.H., County public health officer stated, “Today’s report shows an overall downward trend in the number of cases. Maintaining vigilance and continuing our vaccination, sanitation, and education efforts are critical, but combined efforts by the County, community partners, and local municipalities continue to take us in the right direction.”
According to the public data available on city’s website, approximately 500 vaccines were given to the people of El Cajon, compared to the “105,482 vaccinations, including 89,810 to at-risk populations, as part of the County’s vaccination, sanitation and education strategy” in the areas where outbreaks were registered.
There is a striking difference in the approaches taken by the county versus the city of El Cajon. The county’s outreach efforts are listing “education and food safety outlines provided to the faith-based community, so they can continue their charity and food distribution efforts over the holidays.” The City of El Cajon decided to ban the food sharing all together.
Kalasho disagreed. “I own one of the largest gift card charities. I bring that up because I am in a unique situation because my understanding of this issue is far greater than any other council member and the mayor.” Kalasho said the charity interviews 100 to 500 homeless people every year, raising thousands of dollars in gift cards in $10 increments for restaurants, empowering the recipients to make their own choices and also helping out local businesses. “It gives them a sense of ownership that they are able to buy whatever they want, rather than being fed, like children. I stand by it. A gift card is great, it’s clean, it’s fast, it’s light, it’s less messy, it’s a win-win,” he said.
Andrea Hamlin, has been homeless for seven months due to mental health issues and has a different perspective. “This type of thing does help. In a long run it builds a person’s spirit. It’s about having human contact with somebody who is successful and is also nourishing them. Plus, everybody is watching this on the news, it encourages other people to either help or try not to get where we are.” Hamlin said that, along with her friends, they were unaware about the HAV outbreak. “Nobody told us,” she said. Having people reaching out with information, besides the food and clothing, caused them to take more precautions when interacting with others. She is grateful to everybody feeding the homeless because that helps the people on the streets to “feel good about themselves,” which makes them “want to stay healthy. These people are bringing us salads, stuff that somebody made in their own kitchen and also is bringing us back to what we are missing, a home. That could be hard, but it feels good to go back there. So it could be a double edge sword, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t feel sad at all, that’s what was so beautiful about it. You know, I may ponder on it and I may get sad later, but today was awesome, it was beautiful to see so many people putting their minds and hearts together. It brings joy. It’s a powerful protest.”
Hamlin’s son is homeless also at 21 years old. “For him, it would be a heroin addiction. He’s getting counseling and still using. I can see he’s coming back; he’s my son again. I think having me out here helped him a lot, but you know I am not staying. I think he wanted to impress his mom and he did. He wants to get clean, but it’s not easy,” she said.
MacTavish opened up about his past as a homeless child, then as a homeless veteran, “working really hard to get off the streets and tried to make my life better. I didn’t do it by myself, there were other people there to help me out, help me get my life together and so I am just paying it forward,” he said, “None of us are better than each other and we need to take care of each other, because we are all we have, honestly.” He remembers “sleeping in bathtubs in hotel rooms” while his mom was a sex worker and getting arrested when he turned 17, and “eating from the McDonald’s dumpsters. My heart is here on the street with the community and the people.”
Lace Watkins, a member of one of the many organizations protesting the food ban seconded that opinion, saying, “This is about creating community. The most important thing is having people know that we care about them and that we stand.” Watkins emphasized how all the organizations were unified in solidarity against the food ban despite “some ideological differences” and that standing with the homeless community is the right thing to do. “As a woman of color, 30 years ago I wasn’t welcome in El Cajon. My mother used to be afraid to come here and 60 years ago, if it weren’t for people willing to break bad laws, I wouldn’t be standing in front of you. This is important.” Her message to Kalasho, “El Cajon is for everyone. There are more people in East County with good and strong and pure hearts, not just the people who want to gentrify El Cajon.”
Melanie Redden, organizer, questions the meaning of the ban, considering that they were feeding the homeless at the park for the past two weekends and the police came and left, with nobody enforcing the law. “We are going to continue to be here and if Kalasho is gonna look weak if he doesn’t enforce the ban, then I guess I look forward to make him look weak.”
Kalasho had a meeting with the city manager on the day of the protest. Asked about possible ways and deadlines in enforcing the ban, he said, “Today we knew that they were there, we monitored the Facebook pages, and how could I put this in the best way, we are trying to be as effective as possible. Obviously, it’s a really tough decision to make. I am going to leave that up to the chief of the police and the city manager to decide, but I am in favor of enforcing it.” Asked to comment how does the eating in a park fed by charities versus going to a restaurant with a gift card reflects in possibly spreading the HAV, Kalasho said, “There is nothing stopping the people wanting to feed homeless people to go to the park, pick them up, take them to their house, board three or four of them, have them take a shower, feed them, house them. I’ve done that twice, I had two homeless people living in my house before.”
Anyone thinking of taking on housing homeless people in the context of the HAV outbreak, may also want to follow the county’s recommendations for disinfecting every object that comes in contact with potential infected people in homes and businesses by using “a chlorine-based disinfectant (bleach) with a ratio of 1 and 2/3 cup of bleach to one gallon of water.”
In the article "Food ban protest on repeat in El Cajon amid lack of enforcement" on Nov. 30, the following statement has been changed. After careful review, "However, a county map made public showed El Cajon in the range of "1-4 cases" of HAV out of the 561 total cases, updated Nov. 20" This information is incorrect and has been changed to reflect the correct amount of homeless in all of El Cajon's zip codes. The previous numbers were in relation to the entire county.