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Park it!

SLO's pilot parking program is paying off

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As of this printing, San Luis Obispo’s safe parking program is about two weeks into its six-month testing period. And so far, everything is going as expected, which is to say everything’s going quite well.

“There’s no more red and blue lights waking us up at 4 a.m.,” Susan Perez said from the bedroom of her RV stationed on Prado Road.

A few months ago, Perez was one of a handful of people who found themselves scampering around the city in failed attempts to avoid ticket-doling police. But on this day, Perez was comfortably in bed (well, she’s stuck in bed due to a recent back injury) watching TV and snacking on Saltines as her Chihuahua bounced around the RV.

“I think the program’s awesome,” Perez said. “I haven’t slept better in months and months and months.”

That attitude seems almost a polar opposite from her attitude in February, when Perez and other locals living out of their cars seemed at a breaking point after neighbor complaints triggered police crackdowns, landing them all with multiple tickets for illegal occupancy (Perez is still fighting three tickets).

On June 22, officials from the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County (CAPSLO) kicked off a safe parking program, which had been in the works for months, and began allowing homeless people and families to park overnight in the Prado Day Center parking lot.

“It took a lot of work, but it’s pretty much exactly as we predicted,” said Dee Torres, CAPSLO’s homeless services director.

The basic idea is to provide a safe pad of concrete for people sleeping in their vehicles. Rules for overnight Prado car campers are essentially the same as for any client who wants to access homeless services at the center: They have to work with a case manager, and they should work to save money toward finding permanent housing. Torres said CAPSLO uses a guideline for clients to save 70 percent of their income (60 percent for families) if they have income to save. She stressed that clients pay nothing for homeless services, but they’re encouraged to work with CAPSLO volunteers and staff toward finding a home.

In fact, the safe parking program is operating on a budget of just $7,500—which was donated from SLO County and the city of SLO—for its first six months. Most of that money went toward providing camera equipment, Torres said, because CAPSLO can’t provide overnight staff.

Eleven people have signed up for the program so far, which equates to five vehicles parked in Prado overnight (the lot opens at 4 p.m. and closes at 8 a.m.). Any vehicles that can fit in a single space can actually stay during the day, too, but oversized vehicles like RVs have to move off-site during the day.

While most of the vehicles lining either side of Prado Road near the Highway 101 onramp have disappeared, a few stragglers remain. Torres said CAPSLO will accommodate anyone who wants to participate in the parking program, but some people parked on the road have simply refused any services.

“If people are willing to work with us on whatever level, we work with them,” she said.

The pilot program was enacted with the blessing of the SLO City Council and is intended to last six months, during which CAPSLO will draft reports on its status. If all goes well, the program could simply be extended or modified. Torres said the goal isn’t to simply provide parking, but to get people into permanent housing. So hopefully, if the program continues, it won’t be with the same people.

“It provides an humane alternative as we continue to enforce reasonable laws that prevent ‘camping’ along the city’s creeks and roadsides,” City Councilman John Ashbaugh said in an e-mail. “People need services, and the most important of these is, and always has been, sanitary service.”

Though it appears that fewer vehicles now dot Prado Road since police crackdowns earlier in the year, Capt. Chris Staley of the SLO Police Department said there are still issues between area business owners and homeless people who camp on the road.

“We still have business owners that are down there that have asked us to continue with our efforts,” Staley said.

Police haven’t had any calls specifically for the parking program.

Meanwhile, a group of local homeless individuals are fighting a two-pronged battle against the city over tickets received and the illegal occupancy ordinance itself. Stew Jenkins, the attorney in both cases, said he believes there are between 300 and 500 people living out of their cars in various parts of the city. He’s representing about 60 of them who are fighting tickets. And he’s also suing over the legality of the ordinance, which he believes has been misinterpreted.

The city filed to have the case thrown out. But on July 3, just before New Times went to press, Superior Court Judge Charles S. Crandall temporarily overruled the city’s request and ordered that SLO cease enforcing its ordinance.

“The Court is certainly not oblivious to the efforts that the City Council is making with respect to providing temporary shelter for the homeless in connection with its pilot program,” Crandall concluded in his ruling. “Such a program is vitally important if we, as a society, are to take significant steps in the direction of reducing homelessness and poverty.”

Crandall ordered the city to stop enforcing its ordinance because it “was never intended to, and does not, apply to vehicles that are parked on public streets.”

News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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