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Police release film about unsheltered

To shed light on the multifaceted issue of homelessness and the implications of recent state legislation, the City of El Cajon Police Department released a 35-minute documentary film. “Documentary on the Frontlines of Homelessness and Enforcement” takes an in-depth look at the day-to-day operations of the Special Enforcement Unit as they engage with the homeless population of El Cajon. The documentary features candid interviews with individuals experiencing homelessness, the complex reasons why many are declining available resources such as shelters and transitional living centers, and examines the impact of new California laws that have decriminalized certain petty offenses such as shoplifting and drug use.

“We believe that it is crucial for the community to understand the complexities of homelessness beyond surface-level perceptions,” said Chief Mike Moulton. “We’re inviting the press to join us on the front lines to capture the raw and unedited realities that our officers and the homeless face, to foster greater public awareness and encourage informed discourse.”

Moulton said the individuals in the film consented to be on camera and those wishing to remain anonymous were accommodated.

“The causes, consequences, and solutions to homelessness are complex,” he said. “We hope that this 35-minute short film will help shed some light on the matter.”

In the film, Officer Steven Bellwood said the SEU deals with quality-of-life issues and took team members and members of the Public Works Department to North Marshall Avenue and Billy Mitchell Drive due to a complaint through the City’s mobile app about multiple individuals camping with much property in the drainage canal. During their time there, they spoke with several individuals camping.

The conversations with individuals were polite, yet candid, asking if they knew it was illegal to camp there, if they were drug or alcohol users, and checking for weapons and drugs. Most said housing was their largest obstacle to getting off the streets. Officers handed out pamphlets to individuals with the available resources that could help them.

One man has been homeless for 12 to 13 years. He said he lost all his support systems and did not want to be a burden on anyone. He said he was working with Home Start but had missed his last appointment. This man was arrested because there was a warrant of arrest issued for him.

In many cases throughout the film, officers knew the homeless individuals, had encountered them many times before. Some in the same area repeatedly, and others relocated to another area within the city. In some cases, if there were warrants, or evidence of intent to sell drugs, individuals were arrested. But mostly, the officers intervened to get them off illegal locations, offered them services and resources, attempting to help them find a way out of living on the streets. Most individuals spoken to were candid on drug and alcohol use, and some were in possession of drugs, but it was a misdemeanor offense, the officers could only serve them with a ticket. The most common drug individuals admitted to using was methamphetamine.

Officer Brandon Inis said there has always been a drug problem in El Cajon.

“When I first started, I saw a lot of heroin, where now I see mostly fentanyl and meth. Meth has always been a common problem,” he said.

Filmed in several areas throughout the city of El Cajon, the stories of how they became homeless ranged wide, but the reasons that they denied services and referrals to instant shelters, or programs were the same in many cases.

One service the officers presented was going to the East County Transitional Living Center because it had beds open for immediate use. As many individuals they tried to connect to the Center, all refused. The main reasons for refusal were the mandatory participation in the Center’s program, the length of the program, the inability to smoke, drink, and in several cases the inability to take their pet companions.

Donna agreed to a camera interview. She said that her husband and she were on the streets for 20 years before finally getting a place to live.

“He died on me,” she said. “He passed away and that is how I ended up outside here again. I did not grow up here. I have been all over. I was born in Newport, Rhode Island. I have lived in North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, then we landed here. My mom passed away and then two months later my husband passed away and I could not afford the rent. So, I am back out here again. Hopefully to get matched with a program.”

When asked about going to ECTLC, she said she would not go because they would not let her take her dog with her. She said that she is working with Home Start, Crisis House, and another resource she could not remember.

Many of the homeless individuals had income, some saving for housing. Officers talked to panhandlers who said they needed money that EBT would not cover, saying they made about $30 an hour.

Officer Jay Yu has recommended not confronting individuals, but rather document it, use video on your smartphone, so they can have it for reference when they respond to a complaint.

“From the encampments in canals to the hard truths about substance abuse and the refusal of shelter, this film explores the delicate balance between law enforcement and social care. See firsthand the challenges faced by both the SEU and those living on the streets, as well as the efforts to connect individuals with the resources they need. This is a raw, unfiltered portrayal of the city’s commitment to addressing homelessness, understanding its causes, and seeking long-term solutions. Join us in a conversation that goes beyond the badge, shedding light on a topic that affects every corner of our community.”

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