Fears of Hepatitis A spreading to the East County have led the El Cajon City Council to ban food distribution to the homeless on city property. City officials said the ban was an urgent necessity and insisted it was temporary.
El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells said the ordinance will remain in effect until they see a change in the Hepatitis A outbreak, which has infected at least 567 people in San Diego County and killed at least 20. Most victims are homeless men and women who health officials have said contracted the disease in areas with concentrations of homeless. El Cajon has had 54 reports of Hepatitis A infestation so far this year.
Wells initially said he was willing to be interviewed, but did not return several calls to his cell phone over the course of five days.
Opponents insisted the ordinance was cruel and targeted the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
“Food sharing event means a non-social gathering that is planned, organized, promoted or advertised where food is distributed for charitable purposes at no cost,” the ordinance reads.
Local activists fought back.
Dashiel Mactavish, a volunteer for the San Diego Chapter of Food Not Bombs, said the event was a show of solidarity with the homeless community, not charity. Mactavish has worked with Food Not Bombs for seven years, he said, and called the ordinance an attack on the homeless community.
“It’s a sad state of affairs we’re in,” he said. “We’re no different than any other (homeless) person here. Most of us are one paycheck away from this reality.”
SWC student Arantxa Calles, 21, agreed.
“It’s a transparent attack on people,” Calles said. “It’s bullshit. No one should stand for it.”
Activists volunteering at the event said they knew they could be arrested. Some even volunteered to be arrested if authorities arrived and pushed back against the afternoon meal. Charles Eichel, 29, a former SWC student and member of the Party of Socialism and Liberation, agreed.
“The ordinance is not a solution,” xe said. “It’s a direct attack. Until this changes, we will keep serving food and resisting the city by performing a basic act of human decency.”
El Cajon Police have set up temporary trailers in Wells Park following the protests. Those residing in the park say it is an act of intimidation and insist the city wants them out of the park by any means necessary. Traci Hatch-Deeks, a homeless resident of Wells Park nicknamed “The Mayor,” said authorities will ticket them for small inconveniences then file restraining orders or have them arrested. She said she understands the backlash and why the community would fear having homeless people around children, but wishes they were not dehumanized in the process.
“They don’t want us in the park,” she said. “I get that. But just because we’re homeless doesn’t mean we’re brain-dead. We still have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Nathan Davies, another Wells Park resident, said sometimes the volunteers bring food, but the police will not allow them to distribute it to the eagerly awaiting homeless.
“To watch volunteers take all of that time to set up food and get ready to serve it and then have the cops come in and make them put it all away, it hurts,” he said. “A warning would have been nice. We have to find different avenues to make sure we actually eat now.”
Hatch-Deeks said portable restrooms located near the temporary police trailer are as unsanitary as the established park bathroom is. Three portable restrooms smell of putrid fecal matter and one is leaking urine. They are cleaned, she said, but not to a sanitary standard.
El Cajon Police Department officials were contacted with a request for an interview, but did not respond.