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It takes a village

Let's build on homeless outreach success by finding a place for Hope's Village to land

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A lot of attention is being paid to the issue of homelessness in SLO County right now. On a very positive note, a 150-unit motel is being converted in Paso Robles to provide both permanent and temporary housing and resources to North County residents. That's a start.

But in the South County, around 75 homeless were recently evicted from a squatters' area along the Bob Jones Trail near San Luis Creek—so-called illegal campers (unless you argue that current COVID-19 concerns/mandates to leave campers alone/unharrassed should have been maintained). But the area was getting unsightly.

I've worked with the homeless under a church and county mental health outreach program (Pasadena), helped establish a local homeless nonprofit (Hope's Village) and at one point was homeless myself. (The latter was because a county building official refused to approve a house I planned despite support from a professional architect). I raised some money for Dan DeVaul years ago after local officials had condemned his makeshift housing along Los Osos Valley Road and DeVaul was made a felon despite the fact that he was housing the obviously needy.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (endhomelessness.org), most homeless are single (but about a third are families). Homelessness is increasing, not decreasing, especially because of the pandemic.

Homelessness will not just go away. Also in the news recently, the thefts of two cars in SLO (With dogs inside!) were attributed to "vagrants" (likely homeless). How can things get better if there are displaced and possibly mentally ill people wandering the streets without shelter? Things simply can't. People are desperate.

Nonprofit Hope's Village (hopesvillageofslo.com)—which is known for its wonderful mobile shower and RVs for veterans programs—has proposed to start a sustainable village on acreage where homeless could, perhaps, temporarily camp and eventually be helped to build their own modest tiny homes. Tiny homes are in code now in many areas, especially as accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Locally, there was even a tiny home expo on the Madonna Inn property that was well attended two years ago. With Hope's Village, I was at one time charged with finding a parcel of land for purchase or lease for such a village. The effort proved frustrating, but sometimes I regret having given up the effort.

Housing First is a nationwide movement predicated on the idea that homeless people, regardless of whether they are mentally ill or simply destitute from a job loss or eviction, simply cannot move forward without some kind of roof over their heads—and not just a temporary shelter. We all need homes, otherwise a job search or rehabilitation effort remains pretty futile. Churches and corporations in Salt Lake City banded together a few years ago to build housing for the homeless that offered basic amenities (along with support services) and was quite successful for a while. (However, it is true that the program became a magnet to homeless from other areas and the resources became limited.)

But the idea of a village remains sound as long as it is somewhat isolated from middle class neighborhoods. SLO County has a lot of land, and there are parcels, such as one on the north side of Madonna, currently for sale that are or could be zoned residential. Such a village, once established and offered to those who met specific guidelines, could be a model for other communities just as the Paso motel project will hopefully be. There is a very good example in Portland, Oregon. Dignity Village houses at least 60 residents on city-owned land and, since 2000, has provided an opportunity for the disenfranchised to work toward self-sufficiency, starting with the construction of their own modest homes. They do limit how long people can reside there, generally two years. But that's a good start for most toward self-sufficiency (see pictures at dignityvillage.org).

Initially, our local village could have a variety of temporary housing approaches. These include straw bale houses; kit homes; motorhomes; geodesic dome homes; pre-fab homes; and, of course, tiny homes. Donated tents and outhouses, along with portable showers, could serve the early village residents reasonably well with the goal of building permanent infrastructure once coding was established.

Hope's Village has many endorsements and has laid the groundwork for the village concept that has been replicated elsewhere. It is time to start building on our local homeless outreach successes that include the Paso motel rehab, the Prado homeless services center, and the now years-long established Hope's Village organization whose innovativeness has helped so very many—and which is well positioned to get this village concept literally off the ground. Δ

William Seavey wrote to New Times from Cambria. You can write to New Times, too, by sending an opinion piece to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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