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SLO County to create new Homeless Division, homelessness strategy

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Nobody who spoke at the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors meeting on April 19 tried to argue that the problem hasn't gotten worse.

As county and city leaders discussed the state of homelessness—and new possible strategies to address it—officials acknowledged that the county's previous 10-year plan to "end homelessness," as it was titled in 2008, fell well short.

STRATEGY RESET San Luis Obispo County is updating its strategy on homelessness, proposing a five-year plan that includes establishing a new division dedicated to the issue. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • STRATEGY RESET San Luis Obispo County is updating its strategy on homelessness, proposing a five-year plan that includes establishing a new division dedicated to the issue.

"People have not been sitting on their hands—there have been important investments ... the problem is scale of effort," said Susan Funk, an Atascadero City Council member and the SLO County Homeless Services Oversight Council chair. "Essentially, we brought a garden hose to a house fire, and we're going to need to scale up in new and larger ways."

SLO County supervisors hope that hitting the reset button on its broader homelessness strategy will help.

At the April 19 meeting, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved several new initiatives on homelessness—including establishing a dedicated Homeless Division within the Department of Social Services; exploring opening a Homeless Operations Center near its safe parking site on Oklahoma Avenue; finalizing a new five-year plan on homelessness; and creating a citizens homeless oversight committee.

"With a citizens oversight committee and a new direction with an organizational chart that actually makes sense, I think we can actually get some things done," 1st District Supervisor John Peschong said at the meeting.

According to the county's new five-year plan, homelessness is growing locally, outpacing investments in shelter and services. While the plan states that the county has managed to expand its year-round shelter capacity by 73 percent since 2018, there are still only enough beds to cover 20 to 30 percent of the total unsheltered homeless population as counted in 2019.

The county's 2022 Point-in-Time count is not yet available—its release is scheduled for May 1—but officials are expecting a substantial uptick.

"In the last two years, we've had a 39 percent statewide increase in homeless individuals," Peschong said. "I believe on May 1, we're going to find out how bad it is in our county."

Funk said that the county has a pretty good idea that the crisis is worsening based on other data available.

"We do know that the number of people signing up to receive services has been exceeding the number of people flowing out of that system by almost 200 people a year the last two years," Funk said. "It's confirmed what we see with our own eyes, that this problem continues to grow."

SLO County's rising housing costs are a factor: Rents soared 46 percent since 2016, according to the plan. That's forced the median local household to spend 38 percent of its income on housing. Studies show that the risk of homelessness spikes when rental costs exceed 30 percent of household income, Funk said.

The county's new plan aims to offer a roadmap to reducing countywide homelessness by 50 percent in five years. The strategies include "rapidly expanding" emergency shelter options, including adding more "non-congregate temporary shelters," like shelter cabins, tiny homes, and safe parking.

It also highlights a need to improve the data and tracking system that's used countywide to assist homeless people, to "see the movement of unhoused individuals more accurately through the service/housing 'pipeline.'" It also cites the need for more brick-and-mortar locations where those experiencing homelessness can go to find a variety of services—proposing the creation of a new County Homeless Operations Center at a county building near its current safe parking site on Oklahoma Avenue.

"While centralized navigation already exists at the three homeless shelters operated by our [nonprofit] partners, the need for such services often exceeds their capabilities, and they are not fully postured to reach into the unincorporated areas far from their shelter base locations," a county staff report read.

Within two years of the final adoption of the plan, the county also promises to establish a new Homeless Division under its Department of Social Services, which will be able to better leverage staffing and resources and improve communication, according to the plan.

While supervisors called those initiatives just "a first step," they expressed optimism that a renewed regional effort to address the crisis could be successful.

"We're dealing with a situation that is tough," Peschong said. "But if we don't head this off right now, we're going to get to a place where we're not going to be able to fix this. I think the only way we get out of this is if we all work together on it." Δ

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