San Luis Obispo OKs pilot effort for homeless parking

Five spaces are approved to accommodate people sleeping in their cars on city streets

acornejo@thetribunenews.comMarch 20, 2012 

The San Luis Obispo City Council unanimously approved a pilot program Tuesday night to provide safe overnight parking for a handful of the city’s homeless people who live in their vehicles.

The goal of the test program is to provide homeless people with a safe place to sleep while connecting them with case management and eventual housing. Five parking spaces at the Prado Day Center were approved. City staff will report back to the council on the program in six months.

The council delayed a discussion that would have directed staff to study ways to create stricter laws regulating overnight camping in vehicles, making enforcement easier for police officers.

“This program is moving in the right direction,” Councilman Dan Carpenter said. “It is a good start. It’s not going to solve all the problems, we know that. Maybe the program’s success will spill over to churches, other property owners and businesses. I see this as a potential for opportunity to expand it.”

Only those people who commit to case management, and remain drug- and alcohol-free will be candidates for the program.

The number of people living in their cars has increased in recent years for a variety of reasons including the economy, a lack of transitional and affordable housing and limited shelter beds, according to city officials.

The issue came to the public’s attention when officers began enforcing a city ordinance that prohibits over-night camping on city streets.

That move was prompted by complaints from business owners and citizens about what they claimed were increasing assaults, theft and public urination and defecation.

Twenty people spoke in favor of the pilot program Tuesday; many of them also asked the city to consider suspending enforcement of a local law that prohibits people from sleeping in their vehicles on city streets.

“It is inhumane to harass and impoverish them further,” said San Luis Obispo attorney Stew Jenkins. “Suspend the ordinance altogether on the public streets. ... It is an unconstitutional vagrancy ordinance.”

Motor homes, trailers and cars can be seen parked daily along streets including Prado Road, Long Street and Empresa Drive. Those living in the vehicles say police have unfairly targeted them.

A recent survey done by city and Prado Day Center staff determined that more than 60 people are living in their vehicles on city streets.

Of those, 24 were identified as potential candidates for the overnight parking program — individuals willing to follow the guidelines necessary to participate.

City staff says the safe-parking program is consistent with the countywide attempt to address homeless issues in a 10-year plan now being created.

That plan calls for a homeless-services campus on South Higuera Street in San Luis Obispo adjacent to the San Luis Obispo County Department of Social Services.

A similar, but larger, overnight parking program has been offered in Santa Barbara for eight years. That program has 22 overnight parking areas that can accommodate up to 105 vehicles.

A similar pilot program for three spaces at St. Barnabas Episcopal in Arroyo Grande is up for a vote before the City Council on Tuesday.

The San Luis Obispo parking program will begin as soon as the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, which is overseeing it, can raise the estimated $20,000 needed to launch it.

“This was a great hurdle but it is just a piece in the puzzle,” said Dee Torres, homeless services coordinator.

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