Since retiring two years ago, I've volunteered at the Food Bank of San Luis Obispo County in Oceano, the South County People's Kitchen in Grover Beach, and the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition Warming Center in Arroyo Grande. Through this experience, I have come to know some of our local homeless people and I think gained a greater understanding of their needs. This experience has also been the impetus for writing this letter in support of a homeless shelter that would fit those needs and be acceptable to the residents of this county. Whether or not you have any personal experience with the plight of the homeless, we are reminded on an ongoing basis of some of the unfortunate aspects of homelessness such as panhandling, loitering, and acting out. To some extent, homelessness affects us all and it is in all of our interests that the issue of inadequate shelter for the homeless in this county be addressed.
Over the past year, most of the homeless encampments in the South County have been closed, which has left our homeless population reeling in an attempt to find safe shelter. To compound the problem, the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition's winter warming center in Arroyo Grande, which accommodated up to 50 people on cold and/or rainy nights, will not be available this winter. While the coalition has worked tirelessly to procure winter shelter, including partnering with our local churches, this strategy appears to be compromised for three reasons. First, the majority of the homeless population in South County resides within a half a mile of the coast. According to a 2015 point-in-time demographic analysis conducted by SLO County in conjunction with HUD, 258 homeless people resided in the South County and 86 percent of these individuals traveled by bicycle or on foot. Churches interested in helping are located up to 5 miles from the coast. Second, while many homeless people own dogs for companionship and protection, the warming center has been incapable of accommodating pets. Third, many people do not use the warming center because they fear their belongings will be stolen while they are at the shelter. Consequently, up to 80 percent of our South County homeless endure the rain and cold.
Providing adequate shelter for the homeless is not only humanitarian, it must be done before the societal aspects and root causes of homelessness can be addressed. Moreover, providing adequate shelter is cost effective. The housing first project in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada, has no conditions of sobriety or self-improvement and yet has demonstrated that a reduction in days of incarceration alone pays for their program. Other Canadian studies indicate that it is much less costly to taxpayers to house someone and pay retention support than to pay the relatively staggering cost of homelessness. In the U.S., this strategy has found most striking success in reducing homelessness among military veterans in New Orleans, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City. Studies in the U.S. indicate that based on generally poorer health than the general population, the average hospital stay for a homeless person is four days longer than the norm. Other costs of homelessness include ER visits secondary to wintertime respiratory infections and other exposure-related disorders.
The state of California has appropriated $2 billion and the state Legislature has earmarked $400 million, all for affordable housing. How can a portion of this money be most efficaciously allocated to provide basic shelter for the greatest number of our homeless population? The state has vast land holdings and should strongly consider making land available to shelter the homeless. A prime example in the South County is an area comprising hundreds of acres of land located immediately south of Grand Avenue in Grover Beach, between the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean. In this area, there is a secluded 5- to 6-acre parcel located on level ground that is not visible from the highway or the ocean and would conceivably be an ideal location for a year round en masse homeless shelter. Basic, inexpensive A-frame structures could be erected that would serve to protect numbers of homeless people from the elements, allow them to pitch their tents, have a modicum of privacy, and keep their pets and personal belongings with them. While this area along the coast is ecologically sensitive, it is my impression that given the opportunity, people inhabiting this area would have a vested interest in preserving the integrity of this land. If this area is untenable for an en masse homeless encampment, perhaps the state could select an area in this general locale that would be acceptable. I can assure you that any attempt to coerce or entice the homeless to move inland will result in failure.
The provision of land and a year-round shelter for the homeless should be a top priority for the state. I urge all citizens to contact the Select Committee on Homelessness in Sacramento. I implore all the state, county, and local government officials to become proactive regarding this endeavor and take swift action. Winter is soon approaching. Δ
Patrick Ford is retired in Pismo Beach and volunteers in the Five Cities. Respond in a letter to the editor by sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org.