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The city of SLO is helping with homelessness. Here’s how

People who are homeless or nearly homeless span a range of demographics, abilities, circumstances and needs, and most are invisible to the general population, as they crash on couches and floors, by creeks, in cars, in alleyways, or frankly, sometimes in our jails.

They are neighbors who have had setbacks and sometimes face deep challenges, and we shouldn’t become comfortable with their suffering. Unfortunately, these are not just challenges in San Luis Obispo; over 134,000 Californians now face homelessness on any given night.

Across our county, we have made real strides in addressing homelessness — and we can all agree there is a long way to go. Successes are often lost in the sea of ongoing concerns: the well-being of individuals who are still unhoused; impacts to neighborhoods, other residents and visitors; environmental degradation; program costs, and more. We are sometimes overwhelmed by the complexities, and yet, we must act. As a community, we must be thoughtful and effective, and as City Council, we have committed to being strong partners in this effort: The City’s 2019-2021 major city goal of “Housing” for the first time expressly includes the needs of unhoused people.

The hub for addressing homelessness is at the county level. The county of San Luis Obispo Department of Social Services has the responsibility, and receives the funding, to provide “a safety net for individuals and families who need assistance with basic necessities, such as food, housing and health care.”

Within the Social Services Department is the Homeless Services Oversight Council (HSOC), a dedicated group of about 20 individuals representing cities, agencies, nonprofits, health care, public safety and businesses, working together to address many of the issues facing our county’s homeless population.

In addition, the county Health Agency has the responsibility, and receives the funding, to take point on mental health services, while county Drug and Alcohol Services addresses substance abuse services. (Lack of health care, substance abuse and mental health issues are top reasons why people become and remain homeless.)

Andy Pease
Vice Mayor Andy Pease Joe Johnston

SLO Carlyn Christianson.jpg
City Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson Joe Johnston

The city of San Luis Obispo has neither the programmatic infrastructure nor access to the funding sources to directly provide services to our homeless population. We do work closely with nonprofits and the county’s programs that provide case management, transportation, housing, healthcare, education and outreach.

The city provides direct support to the 40 Prado Homeless Services Center and, through loans and inclusionary housing funds, to low-income builders such as the Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo. In addition, the city provides emergency fire, medical and police services to all of our residents, whether housed or unhoused, and we support a specialized SLO Police Department Community Action Team that includes a county-funded mental health worker. The city joins many others to continually advocate for additional resources to fund these programs and more.

In the last five years, the city has permitted 105 deed-restricted Affordable Units, constructed by developers or nonprofit housing organizations, and there are many more such units coming online as large housing projects reach the build stage.

We continue to support significant housing development in alignment with our General Plan, with programs that emphasize workforce housing and support local employees. The city also recently eased the process to construct accessory dwelling units and passed an ordinance allowing tiny homes on wheels.

We are extremely proud of our successes. And we continue to believe that we can and should do more.

As a council, we believe our city’s most critical and most feasible role in addressing homelessness is homes. We need all types of housing built, from single family all the way to transitional shelter, and getting that to happen is our current focus. Our creative and committed staff is developing work plans to support housing to be included in our 2019-2021 financial plan. The draft plan will be presented to the council and public at our City Council meetings on April 2 and April 16.

  • Specific opportunities around homelessness include:
  • Encouraging a broad range of housing options including small units, studios, courtyard housing and flats
  • Supporting regional efforts for housing and improving the jobs/housing balance, which includes better regional transportation
  • Facilitating deed-restricted, affordable housing
  • Removing barriers for single-room occupancy (SROs) and group housing

While those efforts will accommodate a wider range of permanent housing, we also need to work with our government and nonprofit partners to expand transitional housing options, which could include:

  • Expanding options for a Safe Parking program
  • Exploring regional “pop-up housing” for tiny homes, transitional campgrounds or short-term rentals in vacant commercial space, among other ideas.
  • Facilitating home-shares and supportive housing
  • Partnering with service providers to find opportunities for support services such as food and showers

Can we solve the “homeless problem”? Probably not, at least not right now. But maybe it’s better to skip that debate and instead roll up our sleeves and do what we can.

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Andy Pease is vice mayor of San Luis Obispo and Carlyn Christianson is a City Council member.

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