Nearly five years after receiving a $1.5 million bequest to expand homeless services in the South County, a nonprofit organization still is looking for property where it can carry out that mission.
The 5 Cities Homeless Coalition has been effective in getting some of its clients into permanent housing, but has been unable to meet its goal of opening a one-stop services center, similar to the Prado Day Center in San Luis Obispo.
An effort to buy a piece of property in Grover Beach fell through when the owner decided not to sell. Another attempt to buy a piece of property in Oceano was abandoned after residents worried about security and raised concerns about where clients would go at night.
The homeless coalition’s board of directors is now rethinking its original proposal to operate a daytime center and is considering an overnight shelter component as well, according to Executive Director Janna Nichols.
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That would answer concerns about where clients would go at night.
Also, an overnight shelter would be covered under Senate Bill 2, a 2008 state law that requires cities and counties to accommodate homeless shelters.
Specifically, it mandates that every jurisdiction designate land where homeless shelters — including at least one year-round shelter — can be built without a conditional use permit or other discretionary approval. That avoids the public hearing process that can often be the death knell not only for homeless shelters, but also for detox centers, soup kitchens and other facilities that are so often shunned by neighbors.
Cities and counties can still set standards; for instance, they can limit the size of shelters and set requirements for lighting, parking and security. But as long as the applicant meets the conditions, the project cannot be denied.
Local jurisdictions — including the seven cities and SLO County — have complied by designating areas, or overlay zones, for homeless shelters in their Housing Elements. The city of San Luis Obispo, for example, allows them in its public facilities zone, which includes several locations throughout the city, totaling approximately 425 acres.
Yet SB 2 doesn’t guarantee that an organization will find a spot for ashelter.
There must be property available — and willing sellers — within the shelter overlay zone.
While organizations have the option of applying to open a shelter outside the designated zones, some jurisdictions discourage that. Also, elected officials might be reluctant to approve a controversial project outside the zone.
Some conditions set by agencies can be too restrictive to meet applicants’ needs. Limiting a shelter to 50 occupants won’t work if an organization is looking to accommodate up to 100. Also, conditions can be vague. For example, Grover Beach’s list includes this: “Nearby residential neighborhoods must be adequately buffered from potential impacts of the proposed shelter.” Who, we wonder, would make that determination? And exactly what would constitute “adequate buffering”?
Given such issues, has SB 2 made a difference?
That’s impossible to say, since the state of California has not tracked how many shelters have been built in “overlay zones” since SB 2 took effect in 2008.
We believe such a review is overdue.
The state also could give government agencies better guidance. For example, it isn’t enough for an agency to simply say that a shelter would be allowed in a public facilities zone or an industrial zone without ensuring that there is adequate land available for purchase.
Keep in mind, though, that zoning isn’t the only issue. Money is a big one as well, especially in this era when federal dollars for new homeless shelters are shrinking because of a new emphasis on “housing first” or “rapid re housing” models that strive to get homeless people into permanent housing as quickly as possible. That’s the ideal, but it’s extremely difficult in an area like ours where there is a shortage of affordable rental housing.
As we’ve said, the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition has been successful in placing clients in permanent housing — and it’s about to launch a major initiative to help homeless veterans — but given the overwhelming need, that’s not enough.
The coalition believes the South County needs a single location where an array of services — possibly including overnight accommodations — can be offered.
We agree. But given the reluctance of communities to open their doors, it’s going to take a stronger push on behalf of many leaders — elected officials, homeless advocates, housing and legal experts — to make sure the spirit, and not just the letter, of Senate Bill 2 is met.
A thorough review of the effectiveness of SB 2 by the state is a good place to start. We also urge local jurisdictions to take another look at their own requirements for shelters to ensure they haven’t set the bar so high that it can never be met.