The latest efforts by two local cities to provide safe overnight parking for homeless people living in their vehicles are off to a slow start.
In Arroyo Grande, only one woman and her daughter have spent a few nights in her vehicle in the Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church parking lot since a test program started in late March. The church has three spots available.
In San Luis Obispo, a similar program approved in late March by the City Council for five parking spots at the Prado Day Center is still recruiting people.
The restrictions set by both of the programs vary, but the goal is the same: Only people interested in finding permanent housing will be considered. That may be one reason for the low demand.
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Prado Road in San Luis Obispo has become a haphazard campground for people seeking a place to park their cars and sleep overnight.Some say they are living there because of a stroke of bad luck or because of the slow economy. Others can’t find work or lost their homes. Still, others consider living in a vehicle to be a step up from the creek beds they previously slept in.
But few of those people are willing to commit to the rigorous case management required to participate in San Luis Obispo’s program.“What we can’t have is unregulated encampments up and down Prado Road,” said Dee Torres, homeless services coordinator for the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County. “Especially when we are doing our darnedest to get people in a safe place.”
SLO test program
Case managers are working with four people interested in the San Luis Obispo test program, which is expected to begin operating this month at the Prado Day Center.
Despite outreach efforts, there are still dozens of people who could sign up for the program who have not.
“I don’t want to sign any paper that obligates me to anything,” said Steven Stone, 62, who is living in his trailer parked along Prado Road.
Participants must agree to case management that includes committing a portion of monthly income to be set aside in savings for future housing. The amount varies, but can be up to 70 percent of a person’s monthly income.
Stone said he had no problem with the other requirements, such as not drinking or taking drugs, but that he wasn’t willing to trust anyone else with his Social Security check each month.
Torres said the requirement to commit to saving money for housing has been a long-standing practice used at the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter for people guaranteed one of the 50 available beds each night.
“In our experience, when people are resistant to saving their money for housing to get off the streets and in a home of their own, there are underlying issues,” Torres said.
Several homeless people interviewed said the program was too restrictive and were under the impression that they couldn’t take their pets or have criminal backgrounds.
However, Torres said, the only real requirement is that people commit to case work and aren’t visibly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Unlike the Arroyo Grande program, individuals with criminal backgrounds won’t be screened in the program.
San Luis Obispo police have been ticketing people sleeping in their cars overnight on city streets since mid-February after complaints from business owners and citizens about what they claimed were increasing assaults, theft and public urination and defecation.
San Luis Obispo attorney Stewart Jenkins filed a lawsuit in San Luis Obispo Superior Court challenging the city ordinance that prohibits sleeping in vehicles on public streets, alleging that the law is unconstitutional, vague and results in arbitrary enforcement.
In another move to combat the growing number of people living along the roadway, the Prado Day Center began enforcing a pre-existing rule June 1 that requires all people to vacate the area within an eighth of a mile radius from 4 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. each day while the center is closed.
Those who do not follow the rule would be prohibited from receiving services such as meals from the center.
“Basically, they just want us to go away,” said Randall Reed, who is living in a friend’s trailer on Prado Road.
Torres said staff hadn’t enforced the rule until now because they were first trying to find some sort of solution.
“The last six months, we’ve had people bumper-to-bumper parking on the road and staff was at a quandary of what to do,” Torres said. “We came up with a piece of a solution with the parking program.”
A.G. church outreach
The Arroyo Grande program’s goals and requirements may have made it difficult to attract participants, surmised the Rev. Valerie Valle, who brought the proposal to the city last year.
“I don’t see this as a place for people who are choosing to live in their RVs and just want a place so they don’t have to pay for a campground,” she said. “I see this as temporary support to help them move forward in their lives.”
Those interested in the program must have a connection to the South County through work, school or family; have vehicle insurance; be in contact with a case manager on a regular basis; and demonstrate a sincere interest in finding permanent housing.
The case worker from Community Health Centers of the Central Coast who is screening clients for possible participation has also been very selective, Valle said, and priority is given to anyone who is disabled, elderly or has children.
To date, police have screened two applicants for the program, including the woman and her daughter.
Another applicant was rejected when a background check on a man who’d be staying with her revealed an extensive criminal history, according to Arroyo Grande police Cmdr. Beau Pryor.
Since the six-month test program was approved, concerned residents in the small, quiet area formed a neighborhood watch group and met with the church pastor and Arroyo Grande’s police chief.
Of the residents who showed up for a meeting, all but one agreed their neighborhood is not an appropriate location for the program, and believe those in need should have access to indoor facilities or homes where their safety is more assured, said Jaclynn Nisbett, who organized the group.
Church volunteers continue to drive by each evening to make sure no one is parking in the lot, and the lighting in the parking lot is to be upgraded soon (the latter being a top concern to some residents).
Some local residents wonder if the program is even necessary because participation has been so low. Also, participants’ safety can’t be guaranteed in such a secluded area with poor lighting, Nisbett said. She also said the program could harm property values.
“It’s not fair to the homeless and not fair to the neighborhood that you’ve inflicted this upon without inflicting it upon everyone,” she said. “If you want to help people, put them inside.”
The church’s permit expires at the end of September, and the City Council would need to approve its renewal. Before then, church members will assess the program.
“It’s a little frustrating to be doing this work and not being able to serve anybody, but I’m glad we’re getting a chance to find out what is needed and how best to do it,” Valle said.