Homeless can’t park and sleep after dark in San Luis Obispo

acornejo@thetribunenews.comFebruary 26, 2012 

The haphazard rows of motor homes, trailers and cars line Prado Road in San Luis Obispo like a brokendown caravan. It’s become home for dozens of people whose vehicles serve as their last stop before living on the street.

But this “home’’ is not without problems. The many mobile residents parked along the busy road have become troublesome for nearby businesses that complain of a growing number of nuisances such as trash strewn about, trespassing and the stench of urine and feces.

The San Luis Obispo Police Department’s only line of defense against the increasing problem is a city ordinance that prohibits people from sleeping in vehicles outside designated areas such as campgrounds or mobile home parks.

The sheer number of complaints from local businesses and residents triggered police to step up enforcement of the ordinance.

Officers have been knocking on doors and windows in the middle of the night, rousting people from slumber, handing them a ticket when they answer the door. In a three-day period last week, police wrote 21 citations.

No one believes that the current approach is a solution — especially those living in their cars paying fines that could cost them hundreds of dollars. But for the time being it is the only option.

“The city has a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of everyone who lives here, is visiting or is doing business here,” said Mayor Jan Marx. “It is a balancing act.”

A longer-term solution is under way as city leaders and advocates such as Dee Torres, homeless services coordinator for Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, work to create a safe-parking pilot program. It would allow up to 25 vehicles to park in the Prado Day Center lot at night.

In the meantime, however, business owners are left to struggle with the impacts and those living in their cars are left asking where they are supposed to go.

Moving up the road

Phillip Dykeman, his wife and their two sons, ages 10 and 13, live in a Winnebago on Prado Road. They were among the 21 people who received tickets last week.

Prado Road is not the only city street where illegal camping occurs. In addition, police are targeting the homeless in other locations for violating a city ordinance that bans them from parking in the same place for more than 72 hours — after which they must move at least 500 feet.

Most of the people ticketed on Prado Road for living in their vehicles stayed on the same street. “Everyone moved, but no one has anywhere to go,” Dykeman said.

Their family had parked on Elks Lane for four months, but the city posted signs there prohibiting parking after residents at a nearby mobile home and others complained.

That’s when the family moved to Prado Road.

“The city is not solving anything by coming down here and pushing us around,” Dykeman said.

The family keeps to themselves, making sure that their kids make it to the bus stop in the morning to go to school. They hope to move on sometime after the school year — heading south to find work.

Dykeman said the area hasn’t been without its problems — acknowledging that at times there are people who park there who are known junkies and prone to crime.

“This is not the best thing for any of us,” Dykeman said. “Making us move to who knows where isn’t the solution — there needs to be something else. Some families down here are making an honest effort. I’m not a junkie. I’m not on probation or parole.”

Crystal Vernoy, 23, a Templeton native, said she woke up to police pounding on the door of the RV where she and her boyfriend sleep but didn’t answer the door.

“I wasn’t going to answer the door, I can’t afford a ticket,” Vernoy said.

San Luis Obispo Capt. Chris Staley said the middle-of-the-night enforcement is one way to effectively use the ordinance.

“It’s hard for someone to claim they aren’t sleeping in their vehicle when it is in the middle of the night,” he said.

Police Chief Steve Gesell said that the ramped-up enforcement was driven solely by complaints and not at the behest of the City Council.

He also acknowledged the frustration of not yet having a long-term solution.

“There are people that would like us to do something about it, and there is an expectation of what we can do within the confines of the law,” Gesell said. “Our enforcement is limited to the laws in place.”

Safety concerns

Local businesses, while sympathetic to the needs of those living in their vehicles, have filed multiple complaints recently with the police department because of the growing negative impacts.

Some business owners have even tried to ease problems by taking matters into their own hands.

Ken Dewar, of the fuel company J.B. Dewar, installed an added fence for the safety of his employees to prevent people from walking through the company’s front lot.

“We are a fuel business, and people walk through our fueling facility smoking,” he said.

Panhandling and trespassing are just a few recent examples that Dewar said have troubled the business and caused customers to share their concerns.

One Saturday Dewar said his father came down and found a battery charger plugged into an outside wall socket for a car battery. Another time, someone had plugged a coffee pot into it to brew coffee in the morning.

“When our customers choose to not use our facility for their own safety, I am out of income and the city is out of sales tax,” Dewar said. “I do not want to be seen as a pure heartless person, but the reality is that we are being taken advantage of.”

Similar problems have occurred across the road at Westside Auto Supply, where customers have expressed concerns about the de facto campground nearby.

“It basically impedes walk-in customers because they just don’t want to deal with it,” Steve Silva said. “It is definitely a citywide issue, and honestly I don’t know what the solution is, but this isn’t working.”

‘No regulations’

Torres, a longtime advocate for the homeless who oversees the Prado Day Center, said what is happening is a health and safety issue.

“Of course I want to do whatever I can to help the homeless living in their cars, but what is happening on Prado Road isn’t working,” said Torres. “There is no sanitation system out there … no place to wash up or put their trash.”

Torres said employees from the Prado Day Center have had to clean up urine or feces around the nearby bus stop more than once. She also worries that someone is going to get hurt.

“There are absolutely no regulations,” said Torres. “We are left in this weird place where we want to provide services and we empathize with the clients, but this is all causing a lot of problems. We’ve been tolerant, and we want solutions.”

Torres said providing a safe parking lot for people to park at night — similar to what Santa Barbara and other communities have done — will temporarily eliminate some of those issues.

In the South County, a similar proposal is in the works to allow parking at a church in Arroyo Grande.

Key components still need to be worked out for the San Luis Obispo program. It can’t just be a drop-in parking lot if it’s going to work, Torres said. There has to be case management that works to connect those using the area to services with the goal of getting people into permanent housing.

The City Council will learn more about the safe-parking program in late March.

“We are trying to make what is happening now more safe and accessible, but there has to be an end plan,” said Torres, who is proposing that CAPSLO employees staff the overnight lot.

“If we just continue to have them parking on streets throughout the city, then they are never going to move forward. Someone needs to work with them and address the underlying issues that got them there.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

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