Number of homeless people in SLO County rises, report finds

Volunteers Antoinette Goins and Jason Bush, who is homeless himself, check along creeks for homeless encampments on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, in Atascadero. They were helping to conduct a count of San Luis Obispo County's homeless population.
Volunteers Antoinette Goins and Jason Bush, who is homeless himself, check along creeks for homeless encampments on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, in Atascadero. They were helping to conduct a count of San Luis Obispo County's homeless population. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

The homeless population in San Luis Obispo County has grown slightly since 2011, based on the latest count, mimicking what other communities throughout the country are seeing, according to a local Social Services official.

The Homeless Services Oversight Council of San Luis Obispo County tallied 2,186 homeless individuals when it conducted a point-in-time count in January, according to an HSOC report.

That number was up from the 2,129 recorded at the last point-in-time count in 2011.

A point-in-time count presents a snapshot of an area’s homeless population in a single 24-hour period. Most areas conduct similar counts to earn federal grants for addressing the needs of homeless populations.

In 2011, HSOC volunteers originally recorded 3,774 homeless individuals, though the organization used a different definition of homelessness that included those sharing housing with others or living in RV and trailer parks due to economic hardship.

The HSOC now uses a more stringent definition that excludes those individuals.

With the adjusted data, the HSOC saw a 3 percent increase in the number of homeless individuals recorded between 2011 and 2013.

The increase wasn’t unexpected, said Laurel Weir, homeless services coordinator for the San Luis Obispo County Department of Social Services.

“Given the economy, it’s not surprising we’re seeing a slight increase,” Weir said. “We typically see the homeless population lag behind what the economy is doing by a year or so. Other communities have seen the same sort of increase.”

Because the county’s homeless population is highly transient, it is difficult to discern any exact numbers regarding homelessness, said Weir, but the overall direction of the numbers still holds true.

“Any time you have a population this dynamic — we can’t count them all,” Weir said.

The actual number of homeless individuals in the area could be much higher. The HSOC predicts that over the course of a year, about 3,487 people in the county will be homeless at some point.

This is approximately 1 percent of the entire population of San Luis Obispo County.

A snapshot of homelessness

Besides the point-in-time count, which only provides a general size of the population, volunteers also conducted a brief survey to get a better idea of the makeup of the county’s homeless.

Peer-to-peer interviewers, all of whom were or had been homeless themselves, surveyed 385 individuals on where they lived, family size, age, gender, education level, military status and other characteristics.

They found that most of the population was unsheltered — only one in 10 reported living in a shelter (8 percent) or transitional housing (3 percent) — with the rest living on the street (48 percent) or in cars (25 percent), campgrounds (12 percent), abandoned buildings (2 percent) and parks (2 percent).

The population was spread throughout the county, with 38 percent in the South County, 34 percent in San Luis Obispo, 21 percent in the North County and 6 percent on the coast.

Roughly 71 percent of these individuals were residents of San Luis Obispo County when they became homeless.

Almost half of the respondents reported having children, though 84 percent of those were not living with their children at the time of the survey.

Less than a quarter of the population is made up of individuals 24 years old or younger, and about 12 percent of the population is estimated to be younger than 18 years old, according to the survey.

Forty-nine percent of the people questioned reported experiencing a mental illness such as chronic depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. The number was up from 31 percent in 2011, though the increase may be due to this year’s questions addressing specific ailments, rather than just general mental illness.

What's next

The HSOC is planning to conduct another point-in-time count in January 2014 to help ensure funds, even though the counts aren’t normally conducted more than once every two years, Weir said.

The HSOC isn’t the only county organization concerned about homelessness, however.

On Tuesday, county supervisors held a lengthy discussion about the problem and the county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness here. They agreed that homelessness is a chronic problem in the county and any plan to end it in 10 years is unrealistic.

Supervisors directed staff to develop a request for proposals to find a nonprofit group or some other organizations that can administer some $2.59 million in federal and local homeless services funding, which will be used in part to find housing for 50 chronically homeless people in the county.

The contract is expected to cost about $467,000.