Homeless care in San Luis Obispo County criticized

Governments throughout San Luis Obispo County should move more aggressively to fight homelessness by spending money and hiring a powerful, full-time “home services coordinator” and support staff, the county civil grand jury said.

In a lengthy report on homelessness subtitled “Are We Solving the Problem?” the grand jury provided a detailed analysis of who the homeless are, where in the county they are located, what services are available and what remains to be done to better address the problem.

Of the county’s nearly 4,000 homeless people, “most sleep on other people’s couches, in cars or outside,” the grand jury wrote.

There are organizations already helping and individuals working on the problem, the grand jury concluded, but those efforts are not enough.

“For the situation to truly improve, responsibility for coordinating and managing .... resources needs to reside with one person, independent of city or county control, but funded by them.”

The grand jury recommended that each of the county’s seven cities, as well as the county Board of Supervisors, “fund a line item in their budgets specifically supporting services” for the homeless.The seven cities are Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Atascadero and Morro Bay.

The report praised the work of several organizations helping the homeless, including the Community Action Partnership, the El Camino Homeless Organization, the Interfaith Coalition and the South County People’s Kitchen.

The grand jury also noted the tentative first steps being taken by means of a “10-year plan to end homelessness,” such as creating a homeless services campus and a homeless services oversight council.

But the grand jury suggested that local agencies are merely paying lip service to some of these reform efforts.

“The grand jury understands that the cities and county have ‘accepted’ the 10-year plan. However, skeptical witnesses told us that our local governments have not ‘adopted’ it because ‘adoption’ would obligate them to actually implement the plan’s objectives,” the grand jury wrote.

As to the oversight council, the grand jury described it as “probably too large to be an effective governing body.”

The 24-member council includes one county supervisor and representatives from each of the seven cities; two community members; one member each from the faith, academic, health provider and law enforcement communities; three from nonprofit service providers; two low-income housing developers; three representatives from local businesses; and two from county government.

The report spotlights numerous other shortcomings, including the lack of a countywide attack on the problem.

“In Paso Robles, which has a large homeless population, there is no shelter,” the grand jury wrote. “Where they (sleep) is not known, but the nearest shelter is ECHO in Atascadero.”

The grand jury added that “if there are substantial programs to serve the homeless in Morro Bay, Los Osos, Nipomo or Paso Robles, they have not come to the attention of the grand jury.”

Grand jurors also said budget cuts have harmed services to the homeless. For example, the grand jury wrote, county employees “seldom search out the homeless where they sleep, work or gather.”

In the past, the grand jury wrote, an employee of the county Department of Mental Health “beat the bushes and side creeks in an effort to get to know the homeless, earn their trust and get them needed services. No more.”

Asking the homeless to come to the government rather than the other way around does not always work well, the grand jury wrote. “For our homeless population, especially the 25 percent or so with mental illness, it is hard enough to find a place to sleep or eat.”

Among its recommendations, the grand jury said governments and/or nonprofits should:

• Build the Homeless Services Campus “as soon as possible.”

• Pay for not only a homeless services coordinator, but also support staff, “including a grant writer.”

• Vigorously pursue “efforts to build and operate a facility that provides day services and nighttime shelter in the Five Cities and find a way to provide temporary shelter until the new building is open.

“Unless local governments and private organizations join together and expand available resources,” the grand jury concluded, “the homeless adults and children of San Luis Obispo County will continue to struggle, and far too many, including hundreds of our children, will remain homeless.”

Homelessness in slo county

A “snapshot” of the homeless in San Luis Obispo County in January 2009 showed:• There were 3,829 homeless people in the county at that time. Of those, 1,372 were children under 18.

• They slept in cars (21 percent); outdoors (25 percent); with family or friends (18 percent); in a shelter, (12 percent); in transitional housing (11 percent); or in a motel (10 percent).

In interviews with 342 homeless people, researchers found that:

• 56 percent had lived in the county five years or longer and another 24 percent from one to five years.

• 55 percent said they had been homeless for longer than a year.

• Substance abuse, divorce, low wages, unemployment and eviction due to being unable to pay rent were listed as the chief causes of homelessness.

• 30 percent of interviewees reported a physical disability and 25 percent a mental disability.