A tornado is brewing in San Luis Obispo County's very own Kansas. The eye of the storm contains homeless residents living out of their vehicles at a safe parking site on Kansas Avenue who are frustrated with county officials for the way the program is being run.
"I want to thank Dan Dow, the county, and everybody who had a part in opening up what we called the Kansas Avenue village," Hope's Village Founder Becky Jorgeson said at a March 19 tiny-homes workshop. "We're just delighted with this, they're making progress. ... We couldn't be happier."
"The people living there are not happy," Paul Hershfield, a parking site volunteer, shouted from the crowd.
The Kansas Avenue Safe Parking Site pilot project was controversial from the start. Now renamed the Oklahoma Avenue Safe Parking Site, homeless residents using the site have criticized it since its inception in August 2021. Originally conceived by the county to address the rising homelessness in Los Osos and Oceano, the parking site received flak for being cut off from most grocery stores and services, not having potable water, and being used by recreational campers who weren't unsheltered.
- Photo By Bulbul Rajagopal
- QUICK FIND The county's safe parking site was recently renamed for Oklahoma Avenue so that emergency responders could more quickly locate it via GPS.
The county has tried to address some of the issues by doing things like partnering with the Community Action Partnership of SLO (CAPSLO) to provide case management to parking site users. But some program participants told New Times that it's still not enough.
"There are a lot of people who suffer mental illness that aren't getting the help that they need here, me including," said Jane, a participant who requested her name be changed for anonymity.
Jane said that she deals with schizoaffective disorder, which results in hallucinations and depressive bipolar symptoms.
"It's tough for me on a day-to-day basis. I put on a face mostly to help people. But it's hard for me to interact with others. I've gotten more comfortable as I've lived here and it's helped me grow, but it's still hard," she said. "They bring in TMHA [Transitions-Mental Health Association] but TMHA just gives you a card and tells you to call them. I struggle talking on the phone, ... whether it's to confirm an appointment or talk to my mother."
TMHA is one of the county's partner agencies that offers case management to site participants. Others include 5 Cities Homeless Coalition (5CHC), the Salvation Army, and Housing Authority of the City of SLO (HASLO). According to a county-drawn contract that participants must sign before parking, people who don't have an active case plan within 90 days of arriving or "who are not following their case plan, not completing tasks, missing scheduled appointment, or other infractions" will be asked to leave.
But Jane is one of the parking site residents whose intake process hasn't started yet. She said she has been living there since last August and that participant intakes were supposed to start when the county partnered with CAPSLO in January.
Site volunteers compiled some of the participants' concerns into an email and sent it to SLO County Homeless Services Coordinator Laurel Weir. The email stated that residents were asked to go to CAPSLO's 40Prado services center for intake within 14 days.
"The reason given being there is no Wi-Fi for the intake officer to use. That's funny because the county Wi-Fi works fine for the residents of Kansas," the email said.
Jack Lahey, CAPSLO's director of homeless services, told New Times that his team wasn't able to tap into the county Wi-Fi without using a hotspot. So, a small number of participants came to CAPSLO to complete intake.
"Based on feedback from the site, we started doing paper intake as of the last three weeks," Lahey said on April 4.
CAPSLO social workers now manually complete paper documents and upload the clients' information into the database when they return to the office.
Overcrowding is another complaint from parkers. Prior to a fire that broke out in February and killed one of the participants, the vehicles on-site were made to space out. As of March 30, RVs, cars, and vans at Oklahoma Avenue were closely congregated in groups with considerable space between the clusters. Participants told New Times that almost 90 people were using the site.
"We also have to manage the physical space to make sure we have safe distancing between the trailers," said Jeff Al-Mashat, the program manager of the county's homeless services unit. "Right now, of the 60 spots we have, 57 of them are filled. We are pretty packed with the number of vehicles."
Al-Mashat added that the county is working on making the site bigger. He said the site name was changed to Oklahoma Avenue after the fire so that emergency services could locate the parking area more quickly.
Other than introducing case management, he said that some of the county's successes included vetting visitors through a sign-in sheet and labeling them with visitor badges. Al-Mashat added that they're also looking for more funding to improve overall safety.
"We've heard from people that there are much less drug activity, and much less concerns from people about [others] just being able to drive on and do whatever," Al-Mashat said.
But David, another participant who requested anonymity, criticized the site's safety.
"There's no security at night ... people come in from off the street. They come in after 12 [midnight], and mess with the showers, the toilets, and try to steal things. We more or less have to police ourselves," David said.
While a network of services exists to help out the homeless at Oklahoma Avenue, a Salvation Army representative told New Times that sometimes the wires get crossed between all of the nonprofits that are serving the site.
"Probably the biggest change [needed] is clear communication between the partners and not duplicating services between partners," said Elizabeth Pauschek, the social services county manager of the Salvation Army.
Along with food, which Salvation Army still provides to the site, Pauschek said that her nonprofit also has rapid rehousing services for interested clients. But 5CHC provides similar rehousing help, and Pauschek said participants reported feeling "inundated and bombarded."
"We took a step back for about a month because of staffing issues and because we wanted to be sensitive about that [participant exhaustion] and to evaluate how we provided services," she said.
After Hershfield's announcement about participant complaints at the tiny-homes workshop, Tim Waag, a homeless advocate, spoke up, saying he visits the parking site twice a week and talks to "all the people."
"Yes, it's not a perfect thing. It was done by the county without a lot of advanced planning," he said at the meeting. "But, for me, it's an upgrade. Literally every person who lives out there has told me it's a far better place than wherever they came from." Δ
Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at email@example.com.