There are no shelters—warming or otherwise—on the North Coast of San Luis Obispo County.
So it makes sense that on Feb. 9, the Morro Bay City Council voted unanimously to declare a shelter crisis, showing support for the crisis already declared by the county Board of Supervisors on Feb. 2. The declaration enables the city to look into options for sheltering people within the city and/or for transportation to nearby warming shelters.
“It’s clear that we have unsheltered people in our community. That is undeniable,” Councilmember Christine Johnson said during the meeting. “[The declaration] is a sign that we understand the larger issue.”
Johnson sits on the county’s Homeless Services Oversight Council, which voted in January to ask all seven cities and the county to declare a shelter crisis due to the large number of unsheltered individuals in the county (estimated by the January 2015 Point In Time Homeless Count to be more than 1,000 people) and the extreme winter weather brought on by El Niño.
The larger issue, in Morro Bay’s case, spreads beyond the homeless population. There’s a lack of appropriate buildings in which to open a warming shelter. At the moment, the only potential is a county health services building, which Johnson said she asked the county about already: “I wasn’t told no; I was just told it might be a possibility.”
There’s also a need to finance the costs of operating a warming shelter, which are unclear at this point, as well as finding and appropriately training the volunteers to staff said shelter. Those volunteers need to know what to do if, say, an individual diagnosed with something like hepatitis C starts bleeding while housed in the shelter.
But not everyone involved in serving the homeless community agrees on the need. Bonnie Allen, who wrote a letter to the council about the issue, said that the city shouldn’t be “spending any resources or energy on this issue.”
“I have worked with the homeless here in Morro Bay for several years and can tell you that the folks that want help have been given all the help possible,” she wrote.
Volunteer Nancy Castle, who helps with Morro Bay’s Monday night community dinners, spoke during public comment on the issue and doesn’t agree with Allen’s assessment. Castle said there are about 10 to 15 people in Morro Bay who may be interested in shelter but don’t have it. City Manager Dave Buckingham told New Times that estimate is consistent with what the Morro Bay Police Department is saying.
Councilmember Noah Smukler said the city needs to put pressure on the county to spearhead something more substantial, collaborative, and long term than merely asking cities to declare a shelter crisis during one winter.
“We need to approach this regionally,” he said.