Shortly after COVID-19 hit San Luis Obispo County in March, Los Osos pastor Caroline Hall started noticing tents sprout up in the undeveloped land behind the town's community library.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- MOVE ALONG A small homeless encampment near the Los Osos library will be cleared out by the county this month.
A homeless encampment had formed on the county-owned property, which persists to this day. As president of Los Osos Cares, a local homeless services nonprofit, Hall said she knows some of its members.
"We have a small core of people who will camp. They consider Los Osos to be their home," she told New Times. "There are people in these encampments who are in their 50s, some people who are on SSI [Social Security income] because they have a disability."
While the camp is small, around 10 to 12 people, county officials and some residents are concerned about public safety risks, including potential brush fires and dangerous behaviors. The county is also obligated under Coastal Commission requirements to maintain the property and preserve its habitat.
This month, SLO County is embarking on a cleanup of the camp—raising questions about compliance with recent legal precedent that prohibits municipalities from criminalizing camping on public property without providing adequate shelter alternatives.
County officials said they've been connecting with the camp residents on a regular basis for several weeks, informing them of the situation and "offering services where possible," according to SLO County Public Works Deputy Director Kate Ballantyne.
"That's been the bulk of the work so far," Ballantyne said. "We created an interdisciplinary team of county staff from multiple departments to figure out all of the issue areas."
The county is also working with the Community Action Partnership of SLO County (CAPSLO) to offer campers residency at the 40 Prado Homeless Services Center in SLO, or at its "safe parking" lot if preferred.
But currently, 40 Prado is not accepting new residents due to a recent COVID-19 outbreak, and the shelter has also reduced its capacity from 100 to 70 beds.
"If [40 Prado] is not available and there's no alternative, we'd likely have to delay," Ballantyne said.
If the operation goes as planned, SLO County would soon give camp residents a two-week notice to vacate the property, after which it plans to hold a "services outreach event," where food, medical services, personal property storage, and COVID-19 testing will be offered.
But to homeless advocates, the county's efforts look more like "checking boxes" than providing real solutions. Hall said that 40 Prado, which is many miles from Los Osos, isn't a viable option for everyone, and its capacity doesn't keep up with the county's homeless population.
"The reality is we don't have enough beds in town for the homeless people we got," Hall said. "It doesn't seem to me that the county is really keeping to the court ruling by saying a bed in a homeless shelter, which is having difficulties with a virus, is an adequate place to live."
The Los Osos encampment is the latest in the county to face this dilemma, and Hall emphasized that the community must come up with better, more creative solutions.
"What we need to do really is have a countywide strategy of creating a number of places for people who are not able to find housing to go and have a degree of supervision and security," she said.
Bruce Gibson, SLO Country's 2nd District supervisor, echoed that sentiment and said the county's Homeless Services Oversight Council recently formed a new subcommittee on encampments. He hopes what comes from that will lead to the county making a "bigger investment in dealing with unsheltered homelessness all over the county."
"That group is strategizing on solutions," he said. "This is the tip of the spear of trying to get this done." Δ