Consider this hard truth: 90 percent of San Luis Obispo County's homeless are unsheltered, making SLO the third worst in the nation (compared with similar counties), according to the federal Homeless Assessment Report.
I don't know about you, but that makes me feel ashamed. We're a community of wealth, education, and resources. We claim to be compassionate. So shouldn't we provide safety and a quality of life for those among us who can't take care of themselves or need help procuring shelter?
Last month in this column, we met some of the 1,200-3,500 homeless men and women populating our parks, creek beds, and underpasses. More than 300 of them are chronically homeless, meaning they suffer from a disability and they've gone without shelter for a year or more.
What's the fix? Do we have the will—can we summon our alleged compassion—to tackle a problem that is exacerbated by a shrinking supply of affordable housing? Or do we avert our eyes?
Solutions exist. What's more, the local service providers, teams of dedicated volunteers and activists, and leaders and elected officials that I spoke with agree on the single most important element in addressing homelessness: housing.
"Drug and alcohol services are abysmal in SLO County, and there's not enough room at the women's shelters," said Grace McIntosh, deputy director of Community Action Partnership SLO, "but housing is the No. 1 need."
"Does it make sense to boot the homeless out of their camps or arrest them for vagrancy when you can't provide any alternative housing?" asked Tim Waag, a member of SLO County's Housing Services Oversight Council (HSOC).
Jana Nichols, executive director of the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition, said, "You can't 'law enforcement' your way out of the problem, but we have solutions proven to work."
In particular, Nichols cited 50Now, a program launched in 2014 that provides permanent housing to 50 of the county's most vulnerable homeless individuals, whether or not they are mentally ill, addicted, or disabled. After addressing housing first, the program then wraps the clients in support services, such as detox and mental health treatment.
And here's the proof: 50Now has cut hospital visits in half and almost eliminated arrests and incarcerations for residents, a considerable savings to the public coffers. Encouraged by its success, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to add 10 beds next year.
Laurel Weir, director of homeless services for SLO County, noted other encouraging developments.
"In the five years I've served as director, with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, we've increased the number of permanent supportive housing beds from 28 to 52," she said. "The Emergency Solutions Grant Program has helped us add rapid rehousing units, which provide security deposits and short-term rental assistance, although we still have a challenge finding landlords willing to rent to our clients, especially if they don't have the ability to work."
Other new housing programs that have had an impact on homelessness include the CalWORKS Housing Support Program, the Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program, and the Bringing Families Home Program. But these only succeed in the margins.
In addition, 40 Prado, a new, consolidated center to provide temporary shelter and services to children, families, and adults, will open soon. It will increase the number of emergency housing beds in SLO from 75 (including 25 overflow beds in local churches and synagogues) to 100. McIntosh is particularly excited that families with children will have their own living quarters.
"For the first time, children will have their own bed, a place to keep their belongings," she said.
Thanks to Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic leaders, SLO County is also poised to receive $4.8 million in emergency aid for the homeless.
In a recent report to the Board of Supervisors, Weir and HSOC made a strong case for adding nine more case managers soon, and up to 21 in the long term; building 366 multi-family permanent support housing units, plus 60 to 70 units for families with children; converting a hotel or residential facility into apartment-style units; and creating 15 housing units for families fleeing domestic violence.
But none of it's been approved. While the county's new programs, facility, and grant are encouraging, the HSOC wish list makes apparent how many of our county's residents are literally left out in the cold.
Although 50Now is indeed a model, hundreds of chronically homeless remain outside of its doors; 40 Prado provides emergency housing for only 100 out of the 1,200 plus who go without shelter daily.
And while a $4.8 million grant from the state sounds like a godsend, Weir points out that it's one-time money—expanding personnel and services requires ongoing resources that increase the county budget permanently. Twenty-one case managers, for instance, are estimated to cost $1.5 million per year.
So, what's it going to be, folks? Do we allow this humanitarian crisis to fester and grow, or do we commit the resources necessary to lift fellow citizens out of homelessness?
Let your supervisors and city council members know that you support funding HSOC's aspirations, whether that means a bond measure or tax increase. That's what it will take.
Meanwhile, extend a hand, a smile, a can of soup, and the dignity of recognition to those living on our doorsteps. Δ
Amy Hewes is actively involved in grassroots political action. Send comments through the editor at email@example.com.