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No more, no less: What's the state of SLO County homelessness in 2015?

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View a slideshow of San Luis Obispo's Prado Day Center.

If you’ve spent much time on the Central Coast, you’ve probably heard of the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.

Adopted in 2008, the much-ballyhooed and boldly titled San Luis Obispo County-wide plan outlines an ambitious, multi-pronged strategy to take a bite out of what was then a escalating homelessness issue.

As we enter year seven of the 10-year plan, though, even the rosiest of optimists deem it a work in progress, and many others aren’t afraid to throw out the f-word.

HELTER SHELTER:  San Luis Obispo’s Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter, pictured here, provides 50 beds for those in need, but lines are long, entrance policies are stringent, and the shelter itself is aging. - FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • HELTER SHELTER: San Luis Obispo’s Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter, pictured here, provides 50 beds for those in need, but lines are long, entrance policies are stringent, and the shelter itself is aging.

“It’s year seven, and you’re not going to find many people who say homelessness is a lot better—so we’ve failed,” said District 3 SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill. “That’s just how it is. It doesn’t mean we can’t do a better job, though, and there’s no time like now.”

That mixture of stagnation, frustration, and determination to find a solution is emblematic of the current condition of countywide efforts to thwart homelessness: replete with good intentions, but short on results.

As for the primary cause for the lack of substantial progress on the issue, it depends on whom you ask. Some of the most frequently cited causes include lackluster funding, bureaucratic blockades, economic hard times, organizational inefficiency, poor communication, and political infighting.

All that said, it’s important to know that solving homelessness in SLO County is hardly all doom and gloom.

Especially these days, many people who work with the homeless are excited about a handful of new and upcoming programs that offer new paradigms, increased funding, and—most importantly—real results.

New Times set out to paint a comprehensive and honest picture of what our county is and isn’t doing to end homelessness in 2015.

 

The situation and the stats

There’s no way around it: SLO County’s current homeless numbers aren’t good.

During the county’s last “point-in-time” count of homeless people, in January 2013, 2,186 people were found homeless during a single 24-hour period.

Even worse, based on a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimation formula, about 3,500 people were homeless in SLO County (population, about 270,000) at some point in 2013.

In comparison, King County in Washington—which includes Seattle and has a population of roughly 
2 million—reported a total homeless population of 8,949 to HUD in 2014.

“It’s just basic supply and demand,” said Lee Collins, director of the county’s Department of Social Services (DSS). “This is a relatively rural county with services to match, and we have a disproportionate amount of homeless folks for our infrastructure.”

Signs of that strained infrastructure abound: Jam-packed court calendars, crowded emergency rooms, over-burdened social workers and probation officers, and long lines at the county’s two permanent homeless shelters (with a total of only about 100 beds).

In early 2014, a HUD report found that 90 percent of SLO County’s homeless were unsheltered—the third worst nationally among fellow small counties. When the same report came out in early 2015, the percentage had “dropped” to 89.7, and the county was still fourth worst in the category nationally, sandwiched between three rural Florida areas and Tennessee’s Jackson County.

“Looking, at those figures, there’s no doubt we have a lot of work left to do,” said Laurel Weir, DSS’s homeless services coordinator and numbers guru.

Weir’s sentiment is pretty universal among those who work in the homeless sphere. Everyone in such a position interviewed by New Times identified positive and negative elements at play, but no one held that the county’s cumulative efforts were beyond reproach.

“In terms of how we’re doing with homelessness, I think you have to consider that in the context of our limited resources and how we’re coming out of a recession,” said SLO Police Chief Steve Gesell. “In relative terms, I believe we’re set up for success.”

Not everyone is so optimistic, however.

“I think bad financial times give people an excuse to do a bad job,” said Mary Parker, president of the board at The People’s Kitchen of SLO. “We’ve been complacent not just in being proactive with homelessness, but also in getting on the basic bandwagon. I think SLO County is behind the times.”

 

Duels and duals

When you bring up the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness and the lack of progress thus far in attaining its goals, the weariness in people’s voices is practically tangible.

“The plan probably should have been titled differently,” said Jim Copsey, the longtime police chief in Grover Beach who’s worked extensively with homelessness. “I don’t see us as a county ever ending homeless issues—we’ll probably have those forever and ever. That’s not a ‘glass half-empty’ opinion, just a realistic one.”

TEMPORARY HOME:  Homeless encampments, like this Morro Creek campsite from 2012, are a housing option for many of SLO County’s unsheltered homeless, but they’re also subject to law enforcement whim. - FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • TEMPORARY HOME: Homeless encampments, like this Morro Creek campsite from 2012, are a housing option for many of SLO County’s unsheltered homeless, but they’re also subject to law enforcement whim.

Even at the outset of the plan, local leaders were careful to couch the 10-year timeline as a best-case-scenario objective and more of a statement of purpose. The 10-year plan also made a variety of county agencies and nonprofits eligible for federal and state funding for which they hadn’t previously qualified.

Given that the plan launched in the middle of an awful nationwide recession, those much-desired federal and state monies were slow to trickle in. Then came the contentious question of how to allocate them.

“We had to spend the first few years of the 10-year plan resolving old competitions, eliminating the ‘zero sum’ idea among organizations, and establishing trust,” Collins said. “I feel like everybody has really come along by now, and we also have a lot of money in hand.

“We need places for homeless people to live, so I’m hopeful that smart businesspeople out there will find a way to get some of our money,” he added.

Housing is definitely the first concept on everyone’s mind, as SLO County’s legion of unsheltered homeless residents are in dire need of homes. In the past, the consensus strategy was a “housing-ready” model that concentrated the homeless in shelters and built up services/support around them until they were deemed ready for housing.

However, the new industry standard is a “housing-first” model that posits housing as a form of treatment and stability, encouraging immediate placement into homes, with support and services following suit.

For many years, SLO County stakeholders bickered over the merits of the two models, further slowing the county’s momentum. While housing-first is now the primary strategy for most, there’s still a spectrum of belief.

“I didn’t always think this way, but now I believe that any money that’s not spent on housing-first is a waste of resources,” Hill said. “People get dug in, our services and programs get shaped by funding, and nobody ever wants to admit they might have been wrong.”

Hill opined that shelters in the county should be kept as minimal as possible, and said that many locals should be asking hard questions about whether well-intentioned food and clothing donations and services are steps toward true self-sufficiency or just enabling further homelessness.

“If you’re counting bags of clothes or meals provided or sleeping bags donated, those aren’t good outcomes,” Hill said. “The road to homeless encampments is paved with good intentions, quite literally.”

In comparison, Grace McIntosh—deputy director of the Community Action Partnership of SLO (CAPSLO), which runs SLO’s Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter and the Prado Day Center—said that shelters are necessary, despite agreeing that housing-first is the way to go.

“A mixture of programs is the right strategy,” McIntosh said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and we just don’t have enough housing in our community, so there’s always going to be a need for a shelter.”

Such philosophical differences among the bevy of different local homelessness organizations—even when relatively slight—have proven to be a stumbling block for a community that desperately needs to be on the same page.

“There’s certainly enough homelessness to go around, and that’s why it’s ironic that this issue becomes such a competitive, zero-sum game,” Parker said. “Our efforts are disjointed, and while there are a lot of people doing good things, the communication isn’t there.

“I’ve seen homeless people who end up with eight sleeping bags or five backpacks, and you have to ask yourself: really?” she added.

 

Promising programs

While the stagnation and systemic issues with the county’s overall attack on homelessness are undeniable, there’s still an excellent case to be made for hope.

All those long-promised federal and state dollars are finally arriving in SLO County, and there are even some organizations trying to make an impact independently.

In her position at DSS, Weir oversees most of the outside funding that comes into the department earmarked to address homelessness. She said she’s optimistic about several different new and upcoming programs DSS is managing through partnerships.

In the largest such program, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs kicked in about $6 million over three years just for SLO County in late 2014. The program, which is just now getting started, is called Supportive Services for Veteran Families, and it’s focused on rapid re-housing for vets and knocking down barriers to housing stability.

“It’s a really significant influx of money, and communities that get more housing money are better able to attack chronic homelessness,” Weir said.

Another recently initiated program is the Housing Support Program, funded by a roughly $1 million state grant the county received in September 2014. This program, administered by CAPSLO, is targeting families with shelter needs by providing housing assistance and support services.

Lastly, on the county level, the 50Now program—funded at $1.9 million over three years—was approved by county supervisors in August 2014. Program workers identified the 50 most vulnerable chronically homeless individuals in the county last year and are now placing those individuals into housing, subsidizing their rent, and then offering support services—following the housing-first paradigm.

“These 50 people have been homeless for an average of seven years, and, as of now, we’ve already housed 20 of them,” Weir said. “A lot of these new programs are really making a difference.”

One much-discussed plan in development that could significantly change the homeless landscape is the proposed SLO Homeless Services Center (HSC). As of now, the plans call for a $4.5 million, 150-bed facility on Prado Road that would replace the Prado Day Center and the 50 beds at Maxine Lewis, dramatically increasing the number of shelter beds available in SLO.

The SLO City Council pledged $250,000 toward the effort on Jan. 20, though Councilman Dan Carpenter argued and voted against the plans on housing-first grounds, saying the shelter mentality “enables chronic homelessness.”

PANHANDLING PROBLEMS:  While the majority of SLO County’s homeless choose not to panhandle, SLO Police Chief Steve Gesell said that the high concentration of panhandlers in the “lucrative” downtown SLO environment is a significant concern. - FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PANHANDLING PROBLEMS: While the majority of SLO County’s homeless choose not to panhandle, SLO Police Chief Steve Gesell said that the high concentration of panhandlers in the “lucrative” downtown SLO environment is a significant concern.

Fundraising efforts for the HSC are still underway, and whether the plan will ultimately succeed or fail remains to be seen. However, many stakeholders told New Times that, regardless of the outcome, the politics around the $4.5 million shelter proposal have been complicated, time-consuming, and toxic.

In a completely different vein, an independent group of homeless advocates calling themselves Hope’s Village of SLO is also taking a shot at homelessness, using the “tiny village” model.

The group recently obtained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, and also constructed its first “cabin on wheels”—a tiny mobile home, known affectionately as a “COW,” that they hope will serve as a model for a community of 30 or so tiny homes planted on a parcel of land, housing about 50 people.

Obtaining that land and the necessary permits are the group’s main objectives, according to Craig Mesman, the group’s vice president.

“Hope’s Village will have structure, guidance, and it’ll be democratic,” Mesman said. “We want to be as self-sustaining as possible, and I truly believe the ‘tiny village’ model is repeatable.”

Mesman pointed to successful tiny villages in Portland and Eugene, Ore., as well as in Madison, Wis., as evidence that such independent, alternative housing solutions for the homeless can succeed where more traditional means may fail.

“We are definitely keeping our eyes open in terms of any and all housing possibilities, from former motels to shared housing to tiny houses” the DSS’s Collins said. “We truly need a whole continuum of programs and services.”

 

So, can we end it?

For a county with many divergent efforts and differing opinions when it comes to attacking homelessness, it’s probably no surprise that there’s some disagreement over whether it can be “ended” at all.

Over at CAPSLO, McIntosh said that SLO County’s relative prosperity and “tiny” rental vacancy rate means that housing will always be scarce and homelessness therefore prevalent, barring a “substantial, systemic change.”

For Parker of the SLO People’s Kitchen, whether or not SLO County can solve homelessness comes down to something less tangible than funding, programs, or philosophies.

“More funding is coming in these days, but while the dollar commitment may be there, I’m not so sure about the heart commitment,” Parker said. “You can throw money at anything, but it can’t end there.

“We’re a generous community, but we need to feel more passion for people who it can be hard to feel passion for,” she added.

Collins at DSS said he’s acutely aware of the logistical realities of attacking homelessness, but he also considers it his duty to be optimistic.

“Within my department, we don’t say we want to ‘significantly reduce’ child abuse,” Collins said. “It may sound lofty and be unreasonable, but until homelessness is ended, our work isn’t done.”

 

Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at rheyden@newtimesslo.com.

 

New Times Staff Photographer Kaori Funahashi spent an afternoon at San Luis Obispo's Prado Day Center. The center provides support services, food, and case management for SLO County's homeless men, women, and children.

PHOTOS BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

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