Battle brews over home for homeless center in San Luis Obispo

acornejo@thetribunenews.comJuly 15, 2012 

Efforts to build a comprehensive Homeless Services Center in San Luis Obispo on a vacant lot next to the Department of Social Services on South Higuera Street are being met by mounting concerns about the negative impacts it may have on surrounding businesses.

The plan, approved in 2010 by the city, calls for 200 beds, a commercial kitchen capable of serving three meals a day, laundry facilities, showers, lockers and storage, offices for caseworkers, a classroom for children, and community and multipurpose rooms.

The center, which will be operated by Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, will consolidate existing services such as the city’s dilapidated Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter on Orcutt Road, which has only 50 beds, and Prado Day Center. It will also bring collaborative partners from mental health and drug and alcohol services to the same location.

The concept is part of a strategy called “A Path to a Home: A Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness,” which was endorsed by the county and the county’s seven incorporated cities in 2009.

The business community’s heightened concerns come as the city struggles with a growing population of homeless people living in their vehicles and the impacts that has had on neighboring businesses, which complain of vandalism, theft, loitering, public urination, defecation and general unease among employees and customers.

The concerns of business owners run parallel to the need to help the county’s most vulnerable residents.

“There is really never a place for a project like this that will go without any opposition,” said county Supervisor Adam Hill, who played a key role in getting the site approved.

Hill and other advocates of the new center acknowledge the business community’s concerns and say they will work to address them in coming months. It will likely be three years before the project is complete.

Some efforts are already under way: San Luis Obispo police Chief Steve Gesell plans to assign two police officers to work specifically with the homeless, and the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce has initiated a task force to advocate for impacted businesses.

“A lot of people have a generalized view of the homeless population, but the truth is a lot of people get help through homeless services,” Hill said. “If the idea was just to warehouse them, we wouldn’t put it in a busy, urban area.”

Location for center approved two years ago

The Prado Road business complex near the future Homeless Services Center houses a range of businesses that include corporate offices, furniture stores, biotechnology firms and general contractors.

A capital campaign to raise $7.5 million to build and operate the center is under way and will be taken public later this year. The city Planning Commission approved the use permit for the county-owned site in June 2010 with little opposition.

Before the county leased the site to Community Action Partnership, as many as 20 potential sites were surveyed.

But many business owners say this is the first they have heard about the project in more than a year after being promised they would be involved in the planning process.

“What they are trying to do is put it in the middle of a business park,” said Bill Thoma, owner of Thoma Electric. “We just want to know more.”

Thoma, a longtime supporter of Prado Day Center and the homeless shelter, said the location doesn’t seem like a good fit. He worries about the impact it will have on his own business, an electrical consulting, engineering and design firm. Opponents of the current location haven’t offered an alternative.

Focusing on those who seek help

The services at the center will focus on homeless people who ask for help.

“The problem is not going to go away if there is no homeless service center,” said Derek Johnson, the city’s community development director. “Everyone is working really hard to see what can be done to help those who want it and at the same time reduce the attraction to those that don’t.”

Of concern to Thoma and other business leaders are homeless people who resist case management and don’t want to transition into housing, but who show up for free meals.

“And right now, the program doesn’t say it will turn anyone away,” Thoma said.

Dee Torres, homeless services coordinator for Community Action Partnership, is the first to acknowledge that there is a segment of the homeless population that resists the transition to permanent housing.

Although that’s frustrating to her, she said, people have the right to make choices: “All we can do is to continue to provide solutions and reduce barriers to them.”

And for those who choose homelessness as a lifestyle?

“This is the million-dollar question that I think many communities are grappling with,” Torres said. “We need to continue having thoughtful educated conversations and come up with these answers as a community. What can we afford financially, what environmental impacts are we willing to live with and/or how will they be addressed … many, many questions we need to ask each other, and more importantly, answer.”

Ken Dewar — of fuel company J.B. Dewar, which is next to Prado Day Center on Prado Road — has already spent more than $10,000 in extra security measures because of existing problems.

Dewar is concerned the new center will be too large and in the wrong location.

“I don’t have the answer where the best location is,” said Dewar, adding that there was no way the center would have been put in downtown San Luis Obispo. “It needs to be somewhere farther away from the business community. Right now, it seems like they just put this at the edge of the city — out of sight, out of mind. But we are business people, too.”

Kris Yetter — president of Promega Biosciences, located near the site of the new center — is also concerned about the center’s unintended consequences.

“I have employee safety concerns,” she said. “It is also important that my business is in a respectable business park because I bring customers here; we need to make sure this does not become a homeless Mecca.”

Parking also concerns Yetter. The site’s plan includes a proposed 60 parking spaces and 20 bike spaces for up to 200 clients and 23 employees. City code requires one parking space per eight beds.

“I support the mission of homeless services; it is important to our community and every community,” Yetter said. “I just don’t see any thought or ownership yet addressing the issues that come along with a program like this.”

The concerns have spurred the San Luis Obispo chamber to form a task force to look at the issue. It will meet for the first time this week.

The chamber supported the program in concept when it was first discussed two years ago, but that was before the county dedicated the current site to the project.

“They are quadrupling the capacity at one location, and the message has been, ‘Don’t worry, it is going to be completely safe,’ ” said Courtney Kienow, the chamber’s director of governmental affairs.

“We as a chamber are relooking at our position … to find a solution that will serve the needs of the homeless but will prevent offenders from creating health and safety issues for business owners.”

Behaviors targeted

Gesell, who has come under sharp criticism for stepped-up enforcement of a city ordinance prohibiting people from sleeping in their cars, said it is not the growing homeless population that’s a problem but rather the behaviors that accompany it.

Gesell said misdemeanors such as trespassing, petty theft and public urination and defecation often go unreported but are a growing concern for businesses and residents near makeshift homeless encampments.

“Police cannot solve this problem,” Gesell said, noting that all the stakeholders involved must work toward solutions.

The Homeless Services Center is required by the city to have a neighborhood relations plan that will be annually reviewed by the city’s community development director. It must include provisions for regular meetings and communication with nearby neighbors and establish 24-hour contacts and other ways to limit impacts on neighbors.

If problems arise, the city will use that plan to address them, Johnson said. Gesell will also make recommendations for the plan. Calls for transient-related behavior throughout San Luis Obispo have doubled in the past five years, according to Gesell.

As a result, he intends to realign existing resources to dedicate at least two police officers to work directly with the city’s homeless population. Those officers would be in contact with county mental health services, drug and alcohol services and Community Action Partnership.

Gesell is modeling the program after a similar one in Santa Barbara, which has twice the population of San Luis Obispo and 14 officers dedicated to homeless issues, he said.

“We didn’t even have one,” said Gesell, who worries that the new homeless center will lure people from out of the area and overwhelm local resources.

“San Luis Obispo has already become a destination for people,” Gesell said. “We have to mitigate the migration and influx of more people.”

Required case management is essential, he said.

Torres, who oversees homeless services, said the new center will be built for a capacity of 200 beds but will first have 100 beds to assess the need.

Hill believes the concerns about the center can be resolved through dialogue and planning.

“To some degree, it is about how the community comes together and decides to deal with the problem, which does involve humane enforcement, which will make sure we don’t become a magnet.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.

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