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Nowhere to go: Gaps in resources for homeless services highlight SLO's geographical divide

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Little pieces of tape marked off space on the floor of a 20-by-30-foot room at the Department of Social Services in Arroyo Grande, dividing the room into equal portions for sleeping.

During the day, this room functions as a conference room for SLO County employees. However, on winter nights, when the temperature dropped below 40 degrees, or there was more than a 50 percent chance of rain, the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition (5CHC) converted this conference room into an emergency warming center for South County’s homeless population, which lacks an actual shelter.

After the winter, 5CHC no longer has that warming shelter. In addition, some of the funding 5CHC receives has been gradually decreasing over the years and faces the possibility of being cut altogether. Meanwhile, a new $5.4 million homeless shelter and services center recently broke ground in SLO.

Janna Nichols, 5CHC’s executive director, questioned where and how funding for homelessness resources are directed in SLO County.

“My concern is that there is a misallocation of funding to San Luis Obispo and North County, because they actually have physical shelters,” Nichols said. “There is no shelter here in South County, and because of that we are limited in terms of resources that are being allocated to this part of the county.”

As the rainy season ended, 5CHC and the owner of the Arroyo Grande conference room agreed that the warming shelter wasn’t working in that location. The logistics of flipping the conference room each morning and night were overwhelming, and the room lacked adequate space to serve all of the homeless individuals using the warming center.

From the beginning of November 2016 to the end of March 2017, the warming center was open 69 nights and averaged 40 people per night, as opposed to the previous winter when the warming center was open for 12 nights and averaged 20 people per night.

5CHC gets part of its funding through the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program, which provides grants to states, counties, and municipalities that dole out the money to nonprofit organizations that apply for them. Between 2007 and 2016, the amount of CDBG funding allocated to SLO County dropped by $469,016, according to HUD.

In addition, President Donald Trump’s administration recently proposed eliminating the CDBG program altogether, and if the proposed budget cuts to HUD happen, it would result in a loss of more than $1 million annually to SLO County’s nonprofit organizations.

Currently, 5CHC has an $80,000 CDBG grant through the city of Grover Beach (earmarked to solely serve Grover Beach residents) and another HUD grant of $146,000 shared with partners in North County and SLO. Nichols said 5CHC didn’t apply for CDBG funding through the county this year because she didn’t think it would qualify.

“Fundamentally, the problem is that there is not enough federal or state funding coming to address homelessness in our county,” Nichols said. “I’m not looking to take money away from our partners in Atascadero or San Luis Obispo, I’m just trying to demonstrate the fact that there is not enough being done to address homelessness in the county.”

As the search continues for a new warming center location in the Five Cities area for when the seasons change again, the new homeless shelter in San Luis Obispo, called 40 Prado, will feature 100 emergency shelter beds, family dorms, safe overnight parking, a learning center with computers, laundry facilities, a children’s play area, pet kennels, a commercial kitchen, a community garden, daytime showers, and locker rooms.

While the opening of 40 Prado will be a boon to the homeless population in the city of SLO, homeless individuals living in South County will have a hard time accessing the resources offered at 40 Prado simply because of its distance from the Five Cities and Nipomo. The only other option is for people to utilize what 5CHC can offer them, which isn’t shelter but is a connection to county services as well as help with finding permanent housing and jobs.

Extremely low vacancy rates and increasing rental prices contribute to a lack of affordable housing in the county for clients at 5CHC, according to Nichols. SLO County 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill

agreed, saying that more is needed than just homeless shelters to address the issue.

“The general problem is that we have an enormously challenging problem and we don’t have either coordinated efforts or a sense of what we all should be doing,” Hill said. “That’s led to a lot of the problems … and we have a lot of efforts that tend to be focused more on the donors than on the population that desperately needs housing.”

While shelters like 40 Prado seek to help homeless individuals in SLO County, they don’t necessarily provide long-term solutions. Until there is a greater commitment to housing, SLO County will continue to struggle with homelessness, Hill said.

“I just don’t think we’ve made the proper commitment to do what needs to be done throughout the county,” he said. “The truth is the truth, and things have gotten worse, not better.”

Kristine Xu is a New Times editorial intern. Send comments and story ideas to Editor Camillia Lanham at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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