Viewpoint

Proposed homeless services center will fulfill vital needs

It is unrealistic to rely on San Luis Obispo’s faith community to support a rebuild of the Maxine Lewis shelter, as some suggest

May 19, 2014 

Each of us has spent many hours, over many years, searching for answers to the vexing questions presented by the increasing numbers of homeless persons within our community. We have worked hard through a variety of local organizations and agencies to deploy scarce public resources and volunteer commitments in the cause of ending homelessness. Many of us were involved in writing the County’s 2008 "10-Year Plan to End Homelessness." All of us are committed to implementing that plan.

One of the primary goals of that plan, now well into its sixth year, is replacing the deteriorating Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter and consolidating the Prado Day Center with it to create a comprehensive Homeless Services Center open 24/7.

In April, it was announced that entering into escrow for the site of this future services center at 40 Prado Road. This announcement received nearly universal acclaim throughout this community.

It was thus with great alarm and disappointment that we read the recent column by Dan Carpenter, calling the proposed center a “holding pen” for the homeless. He suggested our efforts would be better spent to provide immediate, permanent supportive housing for homeless persons, relying on the faith community “in support of a rebuild on the Maxine Lewis property.”

We disagree with Carpenter’s overall position, but find a few areas where we have common ground. Consider the following:

The county Homeless Services Oversight Committee has already adopted a “Housing First” policy. Many agencies and housing providers throughout the region are working on implementing “Housing First”: CAPSLO, Peoples’ Self-Help Housing, Housing Authority of the City of San Luis Obispo, Transitions-Mental Health Association, Veterans Affairs and all the groups represented on our Homeless Services Oversight Committee.

“Housing First” does not preclude the need for a new emergency shelter and day center — it is an extension of it. Day services and emergency shelter are a vital part of any intelligent community response to the crisis of homelessness. The Homeless Services Center is expected to assist clients in getting housing through case management, job placement, drug and alcohol counseling, health services and ultimately a detox facility.

Because we have such policies in place, this county has competed successfully for federal and state emergency housing grants in support of our overall strategy to end homelessness. These grants are important — indeed necessary — but they are not sufficient; all of the communities in this region must step up to do their part in raising the funds to build and operate the new Homeless Services Center.

Carpenter notes that some other cities in our area are reluctant to help, but then uses this fact to justify ignoring the need for a new shelter. Can we afford to wait until each jurisdiction has paid its “fair share”? We expect that, over time, the voters and elected officials in each city will act on their own sense of morality and compassion , within their capabilities, to do their part.

We live in the real world. In an ideal world, funding wouldn’t be an issue: We’d have plenty of suitable housing units just waiting for the homeless to move in. Unfortunately, we don’t live in Carpenter’s utopia. No city in the United States that has adopted “Housing First” has abandoned its network of emergency shelters. These shelters are essential for those waiting for permanent units to open up.

Focusing only on permanent supportive housing assumes adequate resources are available. In reality, most communities have kept the same limited funding “pie” and reallocated dollars from other programs.

Any comprehensive solution to address homelessness must assist individuals and families to move toward selfsufficiency and out of an emergency shelter. Without addressing the root causes of homelessness, such as poverty, lack of affordable housing and limited job and rehabilitation opportunities, we’ll never be able to build enough permanent, affordable housing units to meet the ever-increasing demand.

Since this county began providing homeless shelter beds in 1989, this community has relied on hundreds of wonderful volunteers in the overflow shelter in 12 local houses of worship that rotate monthly — but these churches and synagogues are hardpressed to meet this continuing commitment.

It is unrealistic to expect them to support a mere “rebuild” of the 50-bed Maxine Lewis shelter, as Carpenter has suggested. One key advantage of the proposal for 40 Prado is that it will accommodate the “overflow” homeless clients, relieving the overflow burden on our local churches.

Building the new Homeless Services Center is the right thing to do. Without this facility and the services therein, we’ll never achieve the county’s 10-year plan, nor can we genuinely assist homeless persons to return to sustainability.

John Ashbaugh is a San Luis Obispo city councilman; John Spatafore is an attorney and organizer of Homeless Foundation of San Luis Obispo County; Paul Wolff is a member of the Friends of Prado Day Center; and Sandee Menge is a retired probation officer from Kern County and a member of the CAPSLO Board.

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