Homeless situation in SLO is called a ‘crisis’

City leaders get details on the extent of the problem with a warning that without help, ‘everything is going to fall apart’

acornejo@thetribunenews.comJanuary 12, 2013 

The number of homeless children living in San Luis Obispo is enough to fill an entire elementary school. Shelters are at capacity and quickly deteriorating.

The growing number of homeless in San Luis Obispo County has outpaced available services.

Case managers assigned to help those in need and assist their navigation into permanent housing are often juggling up to 50 cases at a time.

“We are in crisis,” said Dee Torres, homeless services coordinator for Community Action Partnership.

“If we don’t start providing more ample services and working together, then everything is going to fall apart.”

The stark reality of the need for additional services was discussed Saturday morning at a standing-room-only forum hosted by the city at the downtown library.

More than 150 people, only a handful of them homeless, gathered to discuss the impact of homelessness on San Luis Obispo and propose solutions to the City Council.

One thing was clear: there is no simple solution.

“We tend to paint the homeless with one brush, but they are just as complex as we are here,” said Paul Wolff, a former Cal Poly professor.

Nearly 50 people spoke to the council about the need for more services.

Their requests included a detoxification center for people struggling with drug addiction, a larger shelter, a campground for people to stay overnight, tougher police enforcement on transients breaking laws, more affordable housing and more case management.

Wolff reminded the council of what he said are givens: Homelessness is a growing issue; the county and city must act; the community wants to resolve the issue; Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County has agreed to take the lead on a new homeless services campus; and that land for that center has already been gifted.

“Any community can be judged by how it treats those in need,” Wolff said.

The homeless services center planned for South Higuera Street has become a controversial and political battle, with the effort to build it at a standstill. 

A dispute between county Supervisor Adam Hill and businessman Bill Thoma recently fueled that controversy when their disagreement over where the center should be located turned into a public personal attack.

Hill and Thoma started the meeting Saturday by pledging to work together, which one speaker called a “kum ba ya” moment.

Thoma said a compromise was being discussed, but declined to elaborate, saying details needed to be worked out.

Biz Steinberg, chief executive officer of CAPSLO, asked the council to make providing homeless services a major goal in its upcoming two-year budget.

“This city suffers disproportionately the impacts of the problem,” Mayor Jan Marx said.

Marx referred to a recent probation report that listed the number of transients on probation in San Luis Obispo as 59. Only Paso Robles comes close, with 21 cases.

“The homeless problem downtown has reached a point where a lot of people who live here or are visiting are starting to feel uncomfortable,” Marx said.

Downtown business owners say an increase in vandalism and panhandling has made it difficult to do business.

Just four days ago, three women reported being assaulted when a man, who appeared to be homeless, punched one of them and spat an unknown substance into the others’ faces.

“Homelessness has always been here, and it’s always going to be,” Councilman Andrew Carter said.

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