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A civil rights question: San Luis Obispo and advocacy organizations work to settle a lawsuit about the way the city treats its homeless population

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A federal lawsuit alleging that the city of San Luis Obispo violates the constitutional rights of its unhoused residents could be nearing a resolution.

City officials and homeless advocates told New Times that they are in discussions on a settlement in the nearly 2-year-old case—though "significant areas of disagreement remain," court records say.

A formal mediation hearing is scheduled for April 24.

CONFRONTING CITY HALL Aiden, an unhoused resident in SLO for the past five years, sits on a ledge in front of San Luis Obispo City Hall on March 20. Four tents were pitched there as a protest on March 20, just as the city and homeless advocates are working to settle a lawsuit over SLO's treatment of its unhoused population. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • CONFRONTING CITY HALL Aiden, an unhoused resident in SLO for the past five years, sits on a ledge in front of San Luis Obispo City Hall on March 20. Four tents were pitched there as a protest on March 20, just as the city and homeless advocates are working to settle a lawsuit over SLO's treatment of its unhoused population.

"We're working really collaboratively and productively," SLO City Attorney Christine Dietrick told New Times. "I think we're hopeful we can move together in the direction of some solutions that work for the entire community and support our unhoused residents."

In 2021, two statewide nonprofits and a local law office sued the city on behalf of five unsheltered residents and local homeless services nonprofit Hope's Village.

The suit alleged that SLO "has embarked on a campaign of driving its unsheltered residents out of town—or at least out of sight."

"The city has a policy and practice of citing, fining, and arresting ... unsheltered persons to force them to 'move along' from public parks, creeks, sidewalks, open spaces, streets, and parking facilities," the lawsuit alleged. "It often seizes and destroys the personal possessions that these unhoused and unsheltered individuals need for protection, privacy, and survival.

"The city engages in these practices without ensuring that individual shelter and/or housing options are available," it added.

Court documents show that attorneys with the Public Interest Law Project, California Rural Legal Assistance, and Babak Naficy's law office have been in settlement talks with the city since September—exchanging several drafts of potential agreements.

Lauren Hansen, a staff attorney with the Public Interest Law Project, a Bay Area group that "advances justice for low-income people and communities," told New Times that the negotiations center on how the city enforces its municipal code and whether it can provide adequate shelter to the homeless.

"We're concerned that the city, when they go out to sweep encampments, that they don't have available or appropriate shelter before they conduct encampment clear-outs," Hansen said. "They can't cite, arrest, or fine people living outside with nowhere else to go."

While she said she couldn't speak about the specifics of the settlement talks, Hansen noted that the city cannot rely on the 40 Prado Homeless Center and its 124 shelter beds as a cure-all solution for the crisis.

TENT PROTEST Aiden sits beside tents set up on the lawn outside of SLO City Hall on March 20, as the city and homeless advocates work to hash out a settlement in a civil rights lawsuit filed against SLO for the way the city treats its unhoused population. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • TENT PROTEST Aiden sits beside tents set up on the lawn outside of SLO City Hall on March 20, as the city and homeless advocates work to hash out a settlement in a civil rights lawsuit filed against SLO for the way the city treats its unhoused population.

"Not everybody can stay at Prado, either because there's not space, sometimes it's closed due to a COVID outbreak, or it's not appropriate because of a disability or some other health issue," she said. "Absent available shelter, the city does not tell people where to be on public property, and they're left figuring out where to rest without getting cited."

According to past New Times reporting, SLO regularly monitors and sweeps homeless encampments in public spaces, clearing at least one encampment per month between 2020 and 2022. The sweeps occurred in more than 30 locations in the city and brought 120 tons of material—the weight of 10 school buses—to the landfill, according to city data.

On March 20, Becky Jorgeson, president of Hope's Village, staged a protest outside of SLO City Hall in response to what she called the continued mistreatment of the homeless.

Jorgeson spoke in front of four tents—which were set up on the front lawn of City Hall and occupied by unsheltered residents—and criticized local police and city administrators for a lack of compassion.

"We're trying to shine a big light on the fact that City Hall is not helping us," Jorgeson said. "The police are getting worse instead of better. Police continue to take people's personal property. It's just unconscionable."

While declining to comment on the federal lawsuit, Jorgeson accused the city of continuing its alleged practice of harassing unhoused people, citing them, forcing them to move, and seizing their belongings.

"They ticket our homeless people who are trying to get sleep," she said. "It's a human right to have sleep."

Dietrick, the SLO city attorney, countered that SLO is taking steps to invest more city funding into services to help the homeless and not penalize them.

"Those are the things we're working towards—how best to deploy resources to help people move out of homelessness," Dietrick told New Times. "It's a focus away from enforcement to getting people housed."

City officials cited multiple lines of effort to show their progress. In 2022, the Fire Department launched a mobile crisis unit with an EMT and a social worker who are dispatched to nonemergency 911 calls. That team has taken 128 calls between July 2022 and March 2023 and reunified 54 residents with friends or family members, according to the city.

The Police Department has also grown its non-sworn, unarmed Community Service Officer team from two officers to six.

"We think that's going to be a huge, huge force multiplier in moving in the right direction, to getting people connected to the assistance they need," Dietrick said.

The city also highlighted a safe parking program near the train station and other proposed programs that are in the works.

"The city is also planning to expand a hotel voucher program, in collaboration with the county and regional service providers, to ensure that a bridge for temporary emergency shelter is in place as new transitional and permanent supportive housing opportunities are developed," city Public Communications Manager Whitney Szentesi said.

SLO recently updated its standards for managing homeless encampments—called the Compassionate Assistance, Mitigation, and Prevention (CAMP) standards. The policy stipulates how exactly city staff should respond to encampments.

Whether those efforts are enough to satisfy Hansen and the plaintiff groups—or if other new policies will be part of a settlement—are outstanding questions.

"I am hopeful," Hansen said. "Because they're entering into settlement negotiations in good faith, they seem like they're serious about resolving those things." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at [email protected].

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