SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Karen McCarthy has been haunted by the same questions for almost two months now.
Her son, Matthew, was beaten to death in December. Matthew and his housemate, Brad Payton, got into a heated argument. Payton, now 26, allegedly left the room and came back with a frying pan, fatally injuring Matthew.
“It’s been the worst for me,” Karen McCarthy says. “Did he call for my name? And why wasn’t I there? And how could I have been there?”
Matthew, 39, was staying in an independent living home on Naranca Avenue in El Cajon. It’s a collection of about eight individuals with developmental or physical disabilities, one step above being homeless.
There’s no credit check required. A portion of a Social Security disability payment covers the rent.
“It was $750 a month, and he was supposed to have his own room, which he didn’t,” Karen says.
Matthew was homeless before he moved in. He had a developmental disability and was possibly bipolar.
Around October 2018, a man stabbed Matthew outside a convenience store in Lakeside. Matthew survived, and moved into the beige ranch house on Naranca. Karen says she and her family would bring Matthew food regularly and that the home appeared clean. What she didn’t know, however, was that El Cajon police received 78 calls from the house in 2018 alone.
“If I had known 78 police reports had been given to that home before he moved in, I would have said, ‘pass,’” Karen says.
Police records show trouble inside its walls: residents breaking things, yelling, physical threats with a knife, and some residents were put on psychiatric holds. Neighbors say there was odd behavior in the middle of the night, including screaming out front, knocking on doors, and asking for money and cigarettes.
“There’s no oversight; there’s no safety net in a home like that, necessarily,” said Lori Sorenson, a director at the nonprofit Regional Center, which connects individuals with developmental disabilities to housing services.
Sorenson says the organization's preference is always the roughly 400 licensed care homes in San Diego County. They offer 24-hour on-site staff, but also have strict rules.
The kind of strict rules Karen says her son Matthew wouldn’t go for.
“My son didn’t want to be home by 9:30,” she says. “My son wanted to smoke pot.”
Housing alternatives for someone like Matthew are homes like the one on Naranca, which has a manager who is on-site part time. Still, there is no state license and, therefore, no official oversight.
El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, also a mental health professional, says the city is powerless to get involved beyond policing individual calls.
“We can't make any kind of regulations or zoning requirements,” Wells says. “Anything we would like to do to regulate that and stop that from happening, the state of California has made sure we can't do that.”
Wells says he would like local zoning control and larger psychiatric hospitals. Sorenson says it comes to a severe lack of affordable housing.
In November, California voters approved Proposition 2. It freed up $2 billion to fund housing for those who are homeless with mental illnesses.
Meanwhile, Sorenson says she has been inside unlicensed homes with three people to a room sleeping on mattresses on the floor. She says the state would never allow that in a licensed facility.
The unlicensed home on Naranca has a mattress in the garage. Tim Rivers, the part-time manager at the home, says it’s just a man-cave.
In a statement, Rivers said the home offers the best of independent living and has a waiting list. He said it's kept clean and helps vulnerable people get off the streets without taking advantage of them. Rivers added that it's just a regular landlord-tenant relationship and no other tenancy rules apply.
Karen says she still feels left in the dark about what happened during the wee hours of Dec. 20, the night her son was slain.
“Why didn’t anyone hear?” Karen says. “There’s all these people in this home, nobody heard him cry out? He had to have cried out, right?”
Payton is charged with murder and has a preliminary hearing scheduled for March 12.