Homeless services group urges SLO County, cities to declare shelter crisis

Jon Akeman and Linda Mcclelland play cards at the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition Warming Center at the department of Social Services in Arroyo Grande.
Jon Akeman and Linda Mcclelland play cards at the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition Warming Center at the department of Social Services in Arroyo Grande. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

With a goal of keeping people who are homeless alive during harsh weather, a local advisory board is urging San Luis Obispo County and its seven cities to declare a shelter crisis and open public buildings as temporary overnight warming centers.

The vote, by the Homeless Services Oversight Council of San Luis Obispo County on Wednesday, “is to start a conversation if nothing else,” San Luis Obispo City Councilman John Ashbaugh said.

Whether that conversation gets off the ground is now up to the county Board of Supervisors and council members in all seven cities.

Several warming centers are already open on certain nights or during certain weather conditions in Paso Robles, Atascadero, Templeton, San Luis Obispo and Arroyo Grande. But the available number of beds on any given night can vary from zero to 112, according to a staff report from the oversight council’s meeting.

There were also 166 emergency beds at local shelters, plus 196 people sheltered in motels on the night of the most recent “point in time” count of homeless individuals in January 2015. That count identified 1,515 people who are homeless — a significant drop from the 2,186 people counted in 2013, but still far higher than the number of beds available in emergency shelters.

The Homeless Services Oversight Council’s action does not obligate the cities or the county to take action. It serves as an advisory board to the supervisors and has a large number of members, including representatives from the county and each city.

But members of the group, such as Ashbaugh, can take the recommendation to their city councils and ask for the issue to be placed on a future agenda for discussion.

Several county residents already have asked the San Luis Obispo City Council and other agencies to declare a shelter crisis, which would allow local governments to make public buildings available as warming centers, according to state law. Doing so would give the jurisdiction immunity from liability from ordinary negligence in providing a temporary shelter.

Martin Meltz, an advocate for people who are homeless, said he believes every jurisdiction has a moral responsibility to declare a shelter crisis and establish guidelines so they are prepared if torrential rains drench the county.

But so far, no declarations have been made.

Grover Beach Councilwoman Mariam Shah said she would push for a discussion to be placed on an agenda but anticipates numerous questions about cost, staffing and other issues.

“It would be up to your staff to bring the details in,” responded Supervisor Debbie Arnold, who chairs the oversight council.

Each local government would have to determine how to fund, staff and operate a warming center, or coordinate with a group to do so.

Laurel Weir, the county’s homeless services coordinator, said several other California cities have adopted or are considering a shelter crisis, including Los Angeles, San Jose and Oakland. The San Jose City Council resolution identified specific properties to be made available and expanded it to include private facilities operated by religious institutions, Weir said.

Ashbaugh said the declaration and its provisions “may ease the concerns that some elected officials, including me, might have.”

He added, “It’s intended primarily to foster conversation. Hopefully we’ll open more beds, perhaps in some communities and perhaps on more days when the risk of being exposed to the elements has on many occasions killed people.”

Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929