SLO homeless shelter plans reach a standstill

Capital campaign for an $8 million center set for South Higuera Street is delayed for now as opposition grows from nearby businesses

acornejo@thetribunenews.comSeptember 22, 2012 

The multiyear endeavor to build a homeless service center in San Luis Obispo is at a temporary standstill as those charged with its vision say it is time to regroup.

The capital campaign for the nearly $8 million center, which was expected to launch this Thursday, was delayed indefinitely last week amid concerns that additional community input and planning is needed.

The issue of homelessness has grown into a political maelstrom in San Luis Obispo in recent months as city leaders struggle with a growing number of people living on the streets.

Influential business leaders recently expressed criticism and concern about the center, planned for a vacant lot next to the county Department of Social Services on South Higuera Street, adjacent to a business park. Plans call for 200 beds, a commercial kitchen, laundry facilities, showers, lockers and storage, offices for caseworkers, a classroom for children and community and multipurpose rooms.

The mounting concern by various factions of the community — including advocates who say not enough is being done for the homeless and those who say the community’s health and safety are deteriorating — have prompted additional discussion.

Dissent, coupled with the struggling economy, have made fundraising difficult and the delay necessary.

“If the problems weren’t as intense and not such a constant issue in so many people’s minds, then winning them over would be easier,” said county Supervisor Adam Hill, who played a key role in getting the site approved. “At this point, there are people unhappy who I was counting on to be a part of the campaign.”

Slow fundraising start

Delaying the capital campaign could lead to the loss of a $1 million state grant. It is tied to a deadline: The center must be built by mid- 2015 or the grant will be revoked.

And while several donors have pledged funds in coming years — including an anonymous couple who are writing a $2 million commitment into their will — there is little cash to launch the campaign.

Typically, in a fundraising effort of this magnitude, a committee will have at least half of the pledged amount secured before taking it public. Several individuals close to the effort say there is just not enough cash in the bank to move the capital campaign forward at this point.

Grace McIntosh, deputy director of Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo, which oversees the shelters, said verbal pledges have not been lost because of the delay.

“The donors have been more than understanding,” McIntosh said. “Because this is such a political issue, they know there are going to be bumps in the road, and they just want to be kept abreast as the issues evolve.”

The committee was working under the pressure of the grant’s expiration, she said.

“We finally came to the realization that the grant could not be our guiding force,” McIntosh said. “And that is OK if ultimately we build a center that is more responsive to our clients’ needs and the community’s concerns. It may be smaller, but it will be better.”

A smaller center?

The goal of building a comprehensive center to provide consolidated services such as mental health, drug and alcohol services, case management and temporary shelter is still at the forefront of the effort.

The question now is how that will be accomplished.

McIntosh said the capital campaign committee is still committed to replace the city’s dilapidated Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter on Orcutt Road and the Prado Day Center off South Higuera.

“It’s just time to take a deep breath and say, this is a big issue; let’s not rush into it,” McIntosh said.

Hill advocates for a smaller, less-expensive project as a way to keep it moving forward and gain community support. He also hopes to keep the grant.

All involved in the effort say that, despite the latest hurdle, the increased dialogue about homelessness by various community stakeholders continues to be positive.

Seeking good behavior

San Luis Obispo police Chief Steve Gesell also favors a different approach.

Gesell said programmatic shifts must occur to guarantee that services are reaching those homeless who want and need help versus those who choose to be transient.

The public has a hard time understanding the difference between those with mental health issues and those wanting to get help, Gesell said.

Thirty percent of the calls that the Police Department gets from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. are for issues dealing with transients who have no desire to gain permanent solutions to their problems, Gesell said.

Gesell is asking those planning the center’s vision to consider a policy that would link services to good behavior. “There has to be a level of accountability outside the center’s four walls,” he said.

For example, if someone were arrested downtown five or six times, Social Services would be notified and administrative action would be considered.

A multiagency team consisting of Social Services, law enforcement and business and community members would be formed to review those cases and assist the person in getting back on track.

“This is another tool to gain compliance and is a win-win for the client,” Gesell said. “It keeps them out of the justice system, saves the taxpayer money, and Social Services has their best interest in mind.”

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

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