A candidate for the San Luis Obispo City Council staged a bright but quiet protest on the steps of City Hall while council members met inside the chambers. On Oct. 16, Matt Strzepek and a handful of supporters waved signs and set 74 candles ablaze—a gesture meant to show solidarity with the 740 homeless people who sleep in cars within the city limits, according to estimates Strzepek said he gleaned from city reports.
Dee Torres, director of the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, said that figure was inflated. She guessed that Strzepek based his numbers on a countywide homeless enumeration study that was heavily weighted by people living in temporary housing. According to CAPSLO estimates, the total number of people living in vehicles within the city is closer to 100.
Strzepek, who’s been living out of his car for about a year, said the vigil was prompted by negative interactions with the police on Oct. 1 and 2, including an officer reportedly harassing, berating, and threatening people who appeared to be sleeping in their vehicles, despite the fact that a city parking ordinance forbidding such activity had yet to take effect.
Strzepek provided a transcript of that event, which he said was typed up immediately afterward and was included in a formal complaint he filed with the SLO Police Department on Oct. 5.
The department didn’t release details of the interaction, but staffers did confirm that officers made contact with suspected illegal campers that night. Captain Christopher Staley said the department takes all citizen complaints seriously and will perform a personnel investigation, though the results won’t likely be made public.
Strzepek provided New Times with contact information for several witnesses who corroborated his account of the event.
“Matt’s account rings very true,” said Marty U’Ren, who was smoking a cigar outside of a friend’s business that night. “I found the officer’s attitude combative and abusive without any provocation.”
Strzepek read a prepared statement to the council during public comment, in which he criticized city leaders for setting a divisive tone that set the stage for abuse by police.
“We can’t continue on this path. We need a council that cares,” he said afterward.