Less than six months after San Luis Obispo County opened a safe parking site near the county jail for people living in vehicles, the city of SLO and the Community Action Partnership of SLO (CAPSLO) rebooted the Railroad Square safe parking site.
They're hoping the new iteration of the program corrects its past mistakes. Before CAPSLO opened the upgraded Railroad Square program in late November 2021, the area was a loosely managed safe parking site, according to CAPSLO Community Program Director Lawren Ramos. He added that the organization expanded management of its 40 Prado safe parking site to officially include the new iteration of the railroad parking zone.
- Cover Courtesy Photo By Donna Hampton
- WHERE TO PARK Although local law enforcement still rousts those illegally parked and camping overnight in places like Oceano, SLO County now has three safe parking sites for them to go to instead.
First opened in March 2021, the original railroad parking site wasn't a popular choice for the unhoused, but officials said the relaunch is part of a regional effort to streamline resources for the homeless.
Kelsey Nocket, SLO's homeless response manager, mentioned a list of operational lessons the city and CAPSLO learned, such as including movable barricades to make people understand there are rules, posting those rules in an accessible way for homeless participants to read, and communicating up front about the purpose of security cameras.
"It acted as a deterrent initially because people thought they were being surveilled. No one likes to feel like they're being watched," she said. "The intention is actually for the safety of the program participants. So if there's a break-in to one of the vehicles or somebody gets hurt ... there's footage to refer back so that we can bring justice about to that individual."
Nocket explained that the region's three safe parking initiatives—the county-run Kansas Avenue program, and the city-managed spaces at 40 Prado and Railroad Square—offer different levels of care.
The 40 Prado site has the highest concentration of supervision. Participants can only park there once they've done full intake and have enrolled in case management. It comes with benefits like having a bathroom facility with separate entry points.
Kansas Avenue's program is the middle ground where the homeless don't necessarily have to be enrolled but two specialists appear on-site from time to time to check in about their housing needs.
With a $65,000 fund from the city, the Railroad Square Safe Parking zone is "light touch." Operating nightly from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., there is no case management involved. The space doesn't have RV hookups, but it does have amenities like portable toilets and a hand-washing station; it doesn't offer walk-in showers because it's also a commercial parking lot connected to the train station. Railroad Square is a pilot program that Nocket said is viewed as temporary, compared to the county-run program that's considered permanent.
"If you are a bit nervous about entering services but you want a safe place to sleep, and you have a vehicle that runs, you can be at Railroad Square," Nocket said. "It's the minimum ... and you would leave in the morning."
- Screenshot From City Of SLO's Parking Site Relaunch Video
- CLEAR COMMUNICATION Posting visible and accessible rules at the Railroad Square Safe Parking site was one of the lessons administrators learned in order to maintain transparency with participants.
The city and CAPSLO also appointed "site captains," who are homeless participants working with the two organizations to monitor others seeking shelter there. Nocket said this role could enhance dignity and encourage autonomy.
One such site captain is George, an RV resident at Railroad Square whose name was changed because he requested anonymity. George has been seeking shelter there for a few months, and he prefers it over his time at Kansas Avenue.
"[At Kansas Avenue] there's just too much riffraff and unregistered cars taking up space. Probation's always going through there, there's cops going through the whole time. It's on rocks, so it's not a place you want to sit outside all day. But people here [Railroad Square] just want a place to come and go. A lot of us go hang out at parks [during the day]," George said.
While participants are thankful for the new space, there were some hiccups too. Pam, another homeless person whose name was changed for anonymity, told New Times that it was "rocky" at the start.
"There were drug addicts who were threatening people, leaving their trash around. They're gone now," she said.
Pam added that some of her needs haven't been addressed by CAPSLO.
"It kinda irritates me. They were gonna give us food cards and gas cards. I've been asking for a gas card for a while, and I've been hearing nothing ... for about three weeks," Pam said.
Jack Lahey, CAPSLO's director of homeless services, said that gas cards are both donated by the public and purchased by the organization, and they are typically used in case management services. Site hosts also get gas cards as compensation, as do participants who achieve personal goals with their case manager.
"They are used if somebody really doesn't want to work with us, we give out gas cards to build rapport. On the holidays, we did give out the gas cards to everybody," Lahey said. "But then I think some people thought we give out gift cards all the time, so there was a little confusion there too."
CAPSLO's website states that if people find their cars uncomfortable to sleep in, they cannot pitch tents. Rather, they should go to the 40 Prado shelter. But Lahey said that this isn't currently possible because of an active COVID-19 outbreak at the shelter. Until Public Health officials clear them—meaning two continuous weeks of negative test results from everybody—CAPSLO can't allow new intakes.
While the railroad site was set up to curb the spread of the delta variant surge among homeless populations last year, Lahey told New Times that it is also the bridge to accessing more specific services from 40 Prado if participants want them.
There are 27 vehicle spaces between both parking zones, and he said they've never reached their capacity. Since the Railroad Square program's reopening, CAPSLO has managed to secure permanent housing for one safe parking participant.
"We typically cover between five and six [participants] at our site here [40 Prado], but if somebody at Railroad really wants that, we would encourage them to come to Prado and start safe parking there," he said. "We will offer case management to folks who are at Railroad but it's limited to outreach-oriented work rather than the full management work we offer at Prado."
The relaunched parking site underscores CAPSLO's focus on addressing housing for people living in vehicles in the central part of the county. Lahey said its scope ranges from Baywood and Morro Bay to Los Osos and SLO, and all the places in between.
"A lot of times before, we tried to say, 'We're gonna get you everything before you get housing.' We're really now squarely focused on, 'How can we get you from point A to B as quickly as possible?' A to B as in, from homeless to housing," he said. "What we really did is starting to talk to participants: 'What works for you? What doesn't work for you? What are things that you need in place?' That's how the relaunch even happened." Δ
Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at firstname.lastname@example.org.