Ninety percent of San Luis Obispo County’s homeless are unsheltered — making the county the third worst in the nation compared with other small counties, according to the annual federal Homeless Assessment Report.
The report, prepared by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is used to convey the extent of homelessness nationwide to Congress each year.
There are 2,357 homeless people living in the county, and only about 235 receive shelter, according to the report.
Only two year-round homeless shelters exist in the county, providing a total of 85 beds: the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter in San Luis Obispo and ECHO in the North County. Several local churches also offer temporary beds when the shelters are full.
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Plans for a new Homeless Services Center in San Luis Obispo that would provide up to another 100 beds are in limbo.
Dee Torres, homeless services coordinator for Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, said the number of homeless reflected in the federal report may not be completely accurate because of the way enumeration counts are performed.
That number was up from the 2,129 recorded during the same count done in 2011.
However, even if there are fewer actual homeless people living on the streets in San Luis Obispo County, the number is still too high, she said.
“We know that we need more shelter beds, and we have been fighting for that for years,” Torres said. “In the short term we need more caseworkers.”
There are fewer than seven caseworkers covering the entire county — three in San Luis Obispo and three full-time and one part-time workers in the South County. None are assigned to the North County or the coast.
“We are stretched,” Torres said.
While the shortage of shelter space is a challenge, it is not the only barrier to getting people off the streets.
“There are really serious things people are dealing with that are keeping them out of coming into the shelters,” Torres said. “Mental illness is rampant in this population, and it is tough. People are choosing to be outside, and it is not good for them or anyone.”
The number of homeless fighting mental illness or drug and alcohol addiction seems to continue to grow, she said.
“If we had solid caseworkers working with this population, there would be a big difference,” Torres said.
Jerry Rioux, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Housing Trust Fund, was shocked by the numbers.
“It is pretty mind-boggling that we have such a high percentage of homeless,” he said. “There are a lot reasons and factors that cause people to be homeless, including drugs and alcohol, mental illness and domestic violence. But the biggest problem is the lack of affordable housing.”
The nonprofit Housing Trust Fund provides funding to developers and government agencies to build and preserve affordable homes for families and seniors on fixed incomes.
Rioux is advocating for changes in development standards countywide to increase the number of affordable homes. His suggestions include allowing secondary units, including manufactured homes, to be built in all areas of all communities; zoning more land for apartments at high densities; conducting an area-wide environmental review to ease the burden on housing developments; and encouraging Cuesta College and Cal Poly to provide campus housing for most full-time students.
Rioux acknowledges that building homes for people who don’t want to improve their situation is futile.
However, case managers can sometimes help.
“If all they need is another chance, a foot in the door and some ideas on where to get a job, it will be a short-term relationship,” he said. “For others, it may take years.”
In the meantime, Rioux said increasing the supply of affordable housing in the county needs to be a priority so that people with lower incomes can afford to be sheltered.