The local chapter of the California Homeless Union returned to the SLO County Government Center prepared to take another legal action against officials.
During the Feb. 7 Board of Supervisors meeting, a small crowd of union members, who were current and former residents of the Oklahoma Avenue safe parking site, rallied outside against the county's confirmation of the program's March 18 sunset date.
- Photo By Bulbul Rajagopal
- NEW HELP The SLO County chapter of the California Homeless Union added a new member to its legal team: Sacramento-based civil rights lawyer Andrea Henson (center, at microphone).
"[The union] is filing a temporary restraining order to prohibit the county of San Luis Obispo from closing their Oklahoma safe parking site," civil rights attorney Andrea Henson said at the rally.
Sacramento-based Henson is now working with the union's lead attorney, Anthony Prince, to represent the homeless union members in a federal lawsuit against SLO County and the nonprofit Community Action Partnership of SLO County (CAPSLO).
Hampered by a slew of problems ranging from overcrowding to stunted resource provision, the 2-year-old safe parking site faced criticism from many of its homeless participants who lived in vehicles on the vacant lot. The site population that reached 80 people at its peak now rests at two dozen, and the county stopped taking new participants last March.
On Feb. 2—after months of uncertainty about when the site would close—the SLO County Homeless Services Division announced its closure date. A Feb. 2 press release stated that 115 people had inhabited the program since it opened, with 67 who moved on to other housing solutions.
The homeless union alleged that the closure date was announced "in retaliation" to the lawsuit, which it filed in January. A temporary restraining order, according to Henson, would preserve the parking site as a haven for the existing residents despite its shortcomings.
"One of the positives of the safe parking site is that I've been able to hold down a job for three years, and I'm able to go to work knowing that my trailer is still on the site," union member and lawsuit plaintiff Michael Maez said at the rally. "Otherwise, if we were out on the street, I'd go to work and wouldn't know if my trailer had been towed and lose everything that I have, which has already happened before."
Maez also advocated for the rights of homeless people living along SLO Creek. He and a handful of other unhoused union members said they hope that the lawsuit and the restraining order will compel the county to provide care and support to them.
Roughly 100 people live along the creek now, according to Jamie Arnold who was evicted from the safe parking site last month. She currently lives with her sister.
"I lived there [by the creek] for over 10 years. It's not just the people at safe parking, but we're speaking for all those at the creek too," she told New Times after the rally. "There's harassment, they have to move, all these people taking their stuff and their tents."
The union hadn't filed the temporary restraining order as of New Times' press time. Prince told New Times on Feb. 7 that the attorneys were revising the motion to include final details.
But the county plans to fight back.
"The county intends on opposing any application for a temporary restraining order to force the county to operate the Oklahoma parking program beyond the March 18, 2024, permanent closure date," Assistant County Counsel Jon Ansolabehere told New Times.
In a Feb. 1 email to Prince, Ansolabehere listed a variety of reasons for site closure. Ansolabehere said that the safe parking site was never intended to be permanent; he cited a grand jury report that criticized the site; and he pointed to the county's declaration last year to eventually shutter the site.
He added that site participants who signed up for the county's Relocation Assistance Program would receive their $1,000 relocation assistance payment when they leave. The county expects to offer weekly on-site refuse disposal to help with cleanup and may be able to assist with some short-term relocation expenses like storage fees and vehicle repairs.
"The continuation of the parking program exposes your clients to unreasonable risks. They have had more than a full year to explore choices and options available to them including guaranteed space at 40 Prado which, despite your allegations, is a professionally run and safe facility," Ansolabehere wrote in the email.
"The fact that your clients prefer not to live in a congregate setting does not entitle them to continue to live at Oklahoma parking, which suffers from numerous health and safety problems," he continued. "And based on our conversations with CAPSLO staff and conversations with your clients, there are other options that they simply are choosing not to pursue." Δ