San Luis Obispo County is finally actively addressing its homelessness problem, and the unhoused are feeling the growing pains.
In August, the county Administrative Office partnered with 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson and 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton to open up unused land on Kansas Avenue, outside of SLO, where homeless people living in vehicles could voluntarily park.
- Photo By Bulbul Rajagopal
- A TEMPORARY ANSWER The safe parking site on Kansas Avenue outside of SLO will be doubling in size to accommodate more than its 20-vehicle capacity.
But several homeless people have questioned the site's placement. Located off Highway 1 beside the county jail, the plot is far away from resources like grocery stores, restaurants, and medical care. Homeless residents in places like Oceano's 17th Street worry about making the move to Kansas Avenue.
"That's not a safe place at all. It's hot up there, and there are no stores for convenience," said John, who requested that New Times not use his real name. He's a homeless man who lives in an RV on 17th Street next to roughly 10 or so other vehicles.
The site next to the jail was established as a response to complaints from Los Osos residents about homeless people living in their vehicles on Palisades Avenue after its use as a safe parking site ended in 2020. Gibson, who represents Los Osos and called himself the conduit for community concerns, let the county Administrative Office know about the objections. After officials allocated roughly $500,000 for the safe parking program, they found free space quicker than expected, Gibson said, because the Kansas Avenue land is county owned.
"There are probably some people who wish the homeless would disappear. The reality ... is that we can no longer turn our head and ignore the problem," Gibson said.
The county isn't a stranger to safe parking sites. SLO's Railroad Square, Palisades Avenue in Los Osos, and the Vets Hall in SLO have all hosted sites, but the Kansas Avenue space is the first of its size as it holds a vehicle capacity of roughly 20.
Assistant County Administrative Officer Rebecca Campbell said that the county didn't take food provision into account when it set up the program. But volunteers are allowed to donate food and other supplies, and she said that a bus stop near the site provides access to SLO.
The parking site does not provide residents with drinking water yet, although its bathroom facility has running water. Campbell said that they're working on providing potable water soon.
In August, law enforcement started notifying people living in their cars in places such as Palisades Avenue in Los Osos and 17th Street in Oceano that they need to move their vehicles and that Kansas Avenue is a safe parking option.
However, another homeless man in Oceano told New Times that several of the vehicles parked on 17th Street don't run, and deputies from the Sheriff's Office and the California Highway Patrol haven't helped. SLO County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Tony Cipolla previously told New Times that the county would offer free towing to the homeless living in defunct vehicles.
The man said that the deputies hadn't notified them about the towing option, adding that deputies allegedly harassed them to move after giving citations.
"It's kind of degrading how they talk to you," he said.
Cipolla and Caleb Mott, the legislative assistant to Supervisor Compton, who represents Oceano, confirmed that notification is an ongoing process.
As notifications increase, more people might need to use the site, but there isn't a lot of extra space available. Gibson told New Times that the Sheriff's Office reported that the site was at capacity on the night of Sept. 15. The county plans to open up more surrounding space to accommodate additional vehicles. Gibson said he hopes it will be ready toward the end of September.
"We've got a couple of issues we need to resolve. There have been reports of folks who are recreational campers and not homeless, who have been parked there and taking advantage of that. We're working on a program to sort that out, to keep the capacity for folks whom we know need the help," he said.
Assistant County Administrative Officer Campbell saw the increased demand as a success.
"Before we started, we weren't sure if anyone was going to use the site. That's why we piloted it as a proof of concept. It's being proven that it's working. Folks are using the site, and we're pleased at that," she said.
County officials launched the site as a three-month pilot program. Nonprofits like 5Cities Homeless Coalition and CAPSLO, which runs safe parking sites in SLO's railroad district and on Prado Road, are offering tailored outreach services to those using the site to help ease them into a more permanent housing situation.
Jack Lahey, CAPSLO's homeless services director, indicated that the site is supposed to operate on a rolling basis.
"In a well-functioning site, the same vehicle shouldn't be there three months down the line," he said.
CAPSLO and 5Cities are assisting residents of the Kansas Avenue site with their long-standing approach of focusing on the goals of the homeless individual rather than imposing a society-approved lifestyle on them.
"We as private citizens and as a society just decide that we can make decisions about this person's life for them. That happens very frequently, not so much from the service provider's end, but from well-meaning people who just want to help," Lahey said.
At the Sept. 14 SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting, several Los Osos residents spoke about the hesitance that homeless people can have toward professional help. Lahey acknowledged that though there is a high rate of "service resistance" in SLO County's homeless community, the most effective way to help is to compassionately meet them where they are.
"There's usually a lot more to that service resistance than 'they simply don't want the help.' If somebody doesn't want the help and they've been chronically homeless, they probably had really traumatic experiences of being open to help and not had help come through," Lahey said.
As the county plans to set up more accessible sites, especially in South County, Lahey said he wants more funding to increase the number of dedicated outreach staff for each site. While some homeless residents see the parking site as a way to keep them out of view, service providers and county officials view it as a pathway out of homelessness.
Janna Nichols, the executive director of 5Cities, said the parking program is ever-evolving.
"There is movement finally to develop these programs and the fact that it isn't necessarily working as well as it might, let's acknowledge that. But let's also acknowledge that we have a safe parking program that hasn't existed before," she said.
Supervisors recently gave the pilot project a three-month extension through the end of the year, and Gibson acknowledged the process has had a learning curve.
"We're learning how to operate a safe parking site. The real success comes down the line where these folks get permanent housing," he said. "Our county is not always on the cutting edge, but we certainly need to up our game." Δ
Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at email@example.com.