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Grover Beach clears out another homeless camp, looks for solutions to a lack of housing

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Eviction prevention is something the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition is hearing about a lot right now—from senior citizens, people on fixed incomes such as disability, and single-parent families.

Executive Director Janna Nichols said that in the first quarter of this year, the organization received triple the requests for service as it did in 2015 for the same time period. And increasingly, people are asking for help to avoid getting evicted from a rental. 

She speculates that the economy is improving, rents are going up, and people are selling their homes or fixing them up, but that movement is causing a housed but poor population to get priced out of the rental market—and pushed into homelessness.

“We’re struggling to get those folks back into housing after two to three months,” she said. And they have at least some money and a rental history. 

So what about chronically homeless individuals? People without money, without a rental history, without identifying documents, and in need of social services like mental health or drug and alcohol addiction treatment. Often, landlords aren’t willing to deal with those issues.

“It’s a challenge,” Nichols said. “Those folks with severe mental illness or drug and alcohol issues are the hardest to serve, and those are some of the people in the camps.”

She’s referring to the two homeless encampments cleared out by the Grover Beach Police Department—in collaboration with several other agencies, including California State Parks—since the beginning of the year. A camp near the railroad station in Grover Beach was cleared out in mid-January, and at the end of April, the same was done at a camp near North Fourth Street and El Camino. 

Staff members from the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition did outreach with camp residents and tried to connect them with needed social services in the weeks before the event. 

“A lot of folks either didn’t want to go to the shelters, … or they’re not clean and sober,” Nichols said. South SLO County doesn’t have a homeless shelter, and staying at shelters in San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, and Atascadero comes with a sobriety requirement—but the shelters don’t necessarily have space for more people. “In terms of where they go if they’re not able to go to the shelter. … Where would one go if they don’t have money, they’re not clean and sober, and they don’t have a rental history?”

The answer is: Somewhere else. Somewhere other than the place they just got kicked out of. 

“I think one of the things that’s becoming apparent to the municipalities is it isn’t OK to just keep pushing [the homeless population] from one place to another,” Nichols said.

Grover Beach Police Chief John Peters said that in the 10 years he’s been with the police department, these two cleanups are the only ones he can remember happening. And they were necessary because of what was going on inside the camps. 

“There was a lot of lawlessness, and people were being victimized,” Peters said. “It was just time.” 

There were fires, fights, vandalism, and petty theft. In the weeks before the January cleanup, a man was stabbed. Grover Beach residents had been complaining about the camp in the estuary area off Fourth Street since before that time. Between the two cleanups, police officers went out into the estuary on at least nine separate occasions with social service providers to try to ease the future hardship of being displaced. 

They were able to place one of the residents into a program for homeless veterans, but he said he doesn’t know where the other homeless residents will go. 

He lamented the fact that there are a dearth of social services and housing opportunities in South County, adding that it’s disappointing that the state doesn’t have more funding to put toward mental health, drug and alcohol treatment, and shelter services. Funding is one of the biggest barriers to providing those services. 

“I think we need that, but we need to think about how we’re going to find it,” Peters said. He uses the millions of dollars that SLO County set aside to build a new animal shelter as an example of funding that could alternatively have been used to build up homeless services or a shelter in South County. 

Grover Beach held a special meeting to discuss the issue on April 26. City Councilmember Mariam Shah, who also serves on the county’s Homeless Services Oversight Council, told attendees that the city is partnering with neighboring cities, county agencies, and nonprofits to put on an event that would help people get things like new IDs, provide haircuts, and try to connect people with social services. She said even if the housing conundrum can’t be fixed at the moment, the goal is to at least provide access to the things that do exist.

Shah also brought up the potential of establishing a home-share program—homeowners renting out a room to someone who needs it. 

“We are all sorely lacking the housing, and we are trying to look at this any way we possibly can,” Shah said. 

Mayor John Shoals said South County residents and officials need to work collectively to come up with practical solutions to the housing and homeless issues. 

“This is not something we can solve on our own, we really need your input,” Shoals said at the recent special meeting. “Really, the next step is to try to do things that are sustainable, that are long term.” 

Editor Camillia Lanham thinks long-term solutions are great, but what are they? Send comments to clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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