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On rotation: SLO city wants to move its safe parking program from site to site, but residents want more public input on the proposal

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San Luis Obispo's Railroad Square is poised to shutter its safe parking site for the homeless, but its potential future iteration has already sparked local ire.

SLO resident Anthony Bozzano lives half a mile from the city's new proposed safe parking site in a primarily residential neighborhood on Palm Street—part of a series of rotating locations under the new program. The city favored the Palm Street strip between the SLO Vets Hall and Grand Avenue for its width and low traffic flow, but Bozzano is worried about its proximity to his home.

WHICH SITE IS RIGHT? The city of San Luis Obispo plans to start a rotating safe parking site program for houseless individuals living out of their cars. - COVER IMAGE FROM ADOBE STOCK
  • Cover Image From Adobe Stock
  • WHICH SITE IS RIGHT? The city of San Luis Obispo plans to start a rotating safe parking site program for houseless individuals living out of their cars.

"I walk my child to day care every day, and that's right where I walk through," he said. "I felt like it's pretty irresponsible of the city to force the people who live in that neighborhood to deal with the interim parking without really taking their input."

City officials are engaging in a slew of actions to soon close the railroad safe parking program and open a new version, but community members say they weren't included in that process.

On July 27, the city announced that the existing site would stop functioning on Aug. 27. That announcement also revealed that during its July 12 meeting, the Planning Commission approved a conditional use permit for Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County (CAPSLO) to officially oversee different safe parking sites across the city.

SLO Homelessness Response Manager Daisy Wiberg mentioned during the July 12 Planning Commission meeting that the city identified a portion of Palm Street adjacent to the Vets Hall as an interim safe parking site.

It took the city's Community Development Department until Aug. 4 to notify property owners and residents within 300 feet of the proposed Palm Street site about the project and location selection. Residents had until Aug. 14 to submit their comments. Letters of opposition flooded City Hall by the time the SLO City Council gathered to meet the following day.

"Given the recent reports at the county parking site, expanding beyond Prado and the Railroad District into a residential neighborhood is a poorly placed 'Band-Aid,'" Bozzano wrote in an email to the city. "There are plenty of wide streets, with little through traffic between 7 p.m. [and] 7 a.m., within the commercial and manufacturing zones outside of SLO City's residential areas, that can serve this purpose better than Palm Street."

In the wake of a growing homelessness crisis, SLO's temporary railroad safe parking site has been open since March 2021, serving unhoused people living out of their vehicles. The pilot program underwent a reboot last February to correct past mistakes and streamline resources for its participants. At the time, program leaders from CAPSLO and the city told New Times the site was "loosely managed" and "light touch." They ranked it as the lowest in level of care compared to the county-run Oklahoma Avenue safe parking site and the city-managed parking program at 40 Prado.

Last September, the Railroad Square safe parking site became cause for concern again when the city notified the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum and its neighbors about upcoming plans to make the parking program permanent. Business owners, their patrons, and neighbors complained about the parking nuisances, occasional alleged verbal harassment, and "human waste, trash, and drug paraphernalia," according to past New Times reporting. City officials then delayed the hearing to make the site permanent.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT The proposed rotating safe parking program will have the same 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. site duration as the current Railroad Square site that's slated to close on Aug. 27. But residents are worried about enforcement and rule-flouting after the 7 a.m. deadline. - FILE PHOTO BY PETER JOHNSON
  • File Photo By Peter Johnson
  • RULES OF ENGAGEMENT The proposed rotating safe parking program will have the same 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. site duration as the current Railroad Square site that's slated to close on Aug. 27. But residents are worried about enforcement and rule-flouting after the 7 a.m. deadline.

Now, the city is faced with another postponement. Based on the mass feedback from the public, Director of Community Development Timothea Tway deferred the decision about finalizing the Palm Street location proposal to the Planning Commission. The commission will discuss approving or denying that location at an unconfirmed date in September. Its decision will then be subject to a 10-day appeal period, and if appealed, the SLO City Council will step in for the final determination. City officials hope that the first rotating safe parking site will be ready for use by Oct. 1.

Wiberg, SLO's homelessness response manager, said that the railroad safe parking site worked within the timeline of the local emergency COVID-19 resolution.

"That was instated during the pandemic and with the statewide emergency order being lifted on Feb. 28, the city had 180 days to continue operating the program at that location per that resolution," Wiberg said. "We had 180 days to continue the program, which gets us to Aug. 27."

As of Aug. 21, the railroad safe parking site housed 38 people. Wiberg called it a success and as the homelessness response manager, she's currently in talks with faith leaders to secure multiple locations to add to the proposed list of rotating safe parking sites. Each site is expected to host the program for one or two months and not more than 120 days.

"We've heard a desire from the faith community of wanting to help," she said. "We've seen with the safe parking program at the railroad location, participants very organically build a sense of community amongst themselves. We felt that partnering with the faith community would be another extension of community for them."

Wiberg stressed that the city's rotating safe parking program is different from the county's contentious Oklahoma Avenue parking program not just because of its temporary nature. It also better adheres to the city's understanding of "safe parking."

"The county's safe parking site was 24 hours a day, and ours is overnight parking from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.," she said. "The true definition of safe parking is the overnight model."

At the SLO City Council meeting on Aug. 15, Wiberg also touted New Beginnings—the city of Santa Barbara's safe parking program—as a successful model to emulate. SLO also sought inspiration from the city of Fremont's safe parking host site program that relies on the rotating structure with five church sites.

Cassie Roach, the program manager of Santa Barbara's New Beginnings, told New Times that the success of the 19-year-old program that oversees 26 safe parking locations has officials contact them for advice from across the nation. The frequency prompted the group to create a best practices manual that's on its second edition now.

According to Roach, other communities all ask for pointers on the same facet of New Beginnings' approach.

"It's the case management piece. Sometimes that gets lost in translation," she said. "A church that's trying to start a program doesn't have the staff to start it and then having to look into an agency to help provide that support."

While SLO city staff consult with New Beginnings and other groups about improving the proposed safe parking program, residents like Bozzano are concerned about what enforcement—or the lack of it—can look like in the future. Along with a group of neighbors, Bozzano contacted SLO Parking Program Manager Gaven Hussey in June about setting up a residential parking district because of shrinking parking spaces.

"Parking Services currently does not have the staffing resources to implement or enforce new parking districts or expand existing districts and have an item before Council on July 11," Hussey wrote in his reply via email to Bozzano. "We are currently in the process of asking the City Council permission to temporarily suspend the formation of new or expansion of existing districts."

Wiberg told New Times that general parking enforcement issues are separate from the safe parking program. The Railroad Square safe parking site is currently administered by CAPSLO's rights and responsibilities document, she added. A similar document will be used for the rotating sites too, with more enforcement details to be finalized after the Planning Commission's September meeting. Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at [email protected].

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