The issue: How can communities in SLO County best deliver homeless services?
There are many different faces to homelessness. They range from those who are mentally ill or substance abusers to disabled veterans or families whose breadwinner loses his or her job.
There are the homeless we see in parking lots holding cardboard signs. There are the homeless who live invisible lives to the vast majority of us, sleeping under bridges or on vacant lots. There are the homeless who may be the classmate of your son, daughter, or grandchild.
While the root causes of homelessness vary, the single common factor is a person’s inability to pay for housing. More on that later.
In San Luis Obispo County, the homeless represent approximately 1 percent of the population — 2,129 individuals. This count was reported by San Luis Obispo County to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2011.
These numbers are staggering. Based on the HUD estimate, San Luis Obispo County has roughly the same number of homeless as Sacramento County, which has 2,376 homeless. However, Sacramento County has a population more than five times that of San Luis Obispo County.
Regardless of the exact count in San Luis Obispo County, the number of homeless is more than a statistic. It’s important for us to recognize the humanity behind the numbers.
One group that stands out are our homeless veterans. Our veterans sacrificed so much in the defense of our country, yet in San Luis Obispo County, more than 271 veterans remain homeless according to the 2011 Point in Time Estimates of Homelessness Report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. According to the same report, Sacramento County has 297 homeless veterans.
Tens of thousands of troops have returned or are returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and too many are struggling to find jobs after coming off active duty. Our heroes end up sleeping on the streets while battling unemployment, the psychological toll of combat, as well as substance abuse.
In San Luis Obispo County, the percentage of homeless veterans is far greater than in other California counties. As a community, we must commit ourselves to serving our heroes as they served us. We must also demand more from the Department of Veteran Affairs and ask Rep. Lois Capps to take a stand and address this shameful truth.
Another group that stands out in the San Luis Obispo County Enumeration Report of 2011 is children. According to the report, approximately half of San Luis Obispo County’s homeless are children. The Enumeration Report relied on data from county school districts and Head Start programs. Our schools have a broad definition of homelessness that includes families who have moved in with grandparents, for example, so the idea that more than 1,500 children are sleeping on the street or in cars isn’t exactly accurate . However, it is nonetheless disturbing and should be a call to action.
As our community grapples with homelessness, there are a few findings from the Enumeration Report that we should keep in mind. The top two reasons for homelessness stated in the report are, firstly, inability to pay rent or mortgage and, secondly, unemployment.
We have now suffered half a decade of either recession or anemic economic growth. The result has been sustained high unemployment with no sign of recovery in the near future.
Therefore, it would fall to reason that one of the best solutions for homelessness is a thriving economy that provides people the opportunity for a job. Fortunately, we now have a majority on the Board of Supervisors that is committed to improving the business climate in San Luis Obispo County in order to attract new companies and create jobs.
Combining the services provided by the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter and Prado Day Center into a new Homeless Services Center makes much sense. However, it should not be located in an area or designed in a way that would harm local small businesses, lest we damage the very job creators our homeless will rely on to get back on their feet.
John Allan Peschong served in President Ronald Reagan’s administration and later as a senior strategist for the campaigns of President George W. Bush. He is a founding partner of Meridian Pacific Inc., a public relations and public affairs company, and serves as chairman of the San Luis Obispo County Republican Party.