With more than 1,000 people who are homeless sleeping outdoors and only a few hundred shelter beds available on any given night in San Luis Obispo County, the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to declare a shelter crisis and pursue ways to bring more people inside during harsh weather this winter.
The board also is asking the county’s seven cities to make the same declaration.
“I think it’s clear that we have the findings to declare a shelter crisis, with upwards of 1,000 unsheltered people and less than 200 beds,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said. “I think the real question is, what can we do about it?”
The shelter crisis declaration allows the county some additional leeway in opening up its public buildings as temporary overnight warming centers, but the Board of Supervisors didn’t direct staff to identify any facilities at this time.
The problem doesn’t necessarily seem to be a lack of space (only one of the warming centers in the county reached capacity in January) but involves other issues such as finding volunteers to staff the overnight shelters and creating ways for people to bring their pets and belongings with them.
“If we’re not looking at how to transport people and their belongings and shelter their pets, then we’re not going to reach capacity,” Supervisor Adam Hill said.
Instead, supervisors asked staff to pursue ways to add space to existing warming stations, to open them more frequently, find more volunteers to staff them and encourage more people who are homeless to use them by providing more transportation, storage space and shelter for pets. The supervisors also directed staff to return with ways to streamline its conditional use permit process to allow private organizations to open temporary shelters.
The county will make $10,000 available for organizations to address the shelter crisis, and supervisors also requested that each city provide $10,000 toward such efforts.
The Paso Robles City Council was set to discuss the shelter crisis issue at its Tuesday evening meeting; no other cities have done so.
I think it’s clear that we have the findings to declare a shelter crisis, with upwards of 1,000 unsheltered people and less than 200 beds. I think the real question is, what can we do about it?
San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson
The county’s declaration will sunset April 15, unless supervisors vote to extend it.
The board was acting on a recommendation from its Homeless Services Oversight Council, an advisory board that recently voted to urge the county and the seven cities to declare a shelter crisis and open public buildings as temporary overnight warming centers. Discussions about how to get more people who are homeless to use the warming centers during cold, wet weather will continue at the advisory board.
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 people who are homeless in January 2015. Of the 1,515 homeless people identified in that count, about 74 percent were unsheltered.
Martin Meltz, an advocate for homeless people, urged the supervisors to “bring people together in a way that hasn’t happened before” to address the crisis. He said he wanted to dispel the idea that the shelters have enough space: He volunteered at the warming center at the Department of Social Services building in Arroyo Grande and said it was crowded with 17 or 18 people sleeping in a conference room.
“It was gently raining, it was not a torrential rain and people were still in the shelters,” he said. “So we do need immediate availability in each of the governmental entities.”
Of the six people who made public comments before the board Tuesday, half of them sit on the board of Sunny Acres, a 72-acre ranch along Los Osos Valley Road just outside San Luis Obispo that has plans for a new residential sober-living facility.
Board member Terry Sheppard asked the county to consider allowing the nonprofit group to play “a more dynamic role in San Luis Obispo County to help with the homeless crisis.”
County supervisors might take up that idea at a future meeting, but the board could not discuss Sunny Acres in depth Tuesday because the item was limited to a discussion of emergency shelters.