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Grover Beach debates solutions to homelessness in city

A skull and crossbones marks the entrance to a Grover Beach homeless camp that the city cleared out North Fourth Street this week.
A skull and crossbones marks the entrance to a Grover Beach homeless camp that the city cleared out North Fourth Street this week. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Grover Beach has long wrestled with how to address the often-conflicting needs of its homeless residents with health and safety concerns voiced by business owners and residents.

As the South County city with the largest and most visible homeless population — San Luis Obispo County’s “Homeless Point In Time Census and Survey” recorded 140 unsheltered homeless people living in the city in January 2015 — Grover Beach has spent a decade attempting to create a balance between the two often-disparate interests but has continued to face criticism from both sides that problems are only escalating.

Many of the recent concerns center around the city clearing out homeless encampments, the most recent of which occurred this week as police cleared out a camp at Fourth Street that was home to about 20 homeless people.

In the past five months, the city has embarked on an effort to give both sides a voice.

“We don’t view this just as a law enforcement issue,” Mayor John Shoals said Tuesday night. “It’s really more of a compassion issue and a more balanced approach.”

It’s a clash of rights. They have rights, and business owners have rights, and homeowners have rights — wherein lies the problem.

David Smallwood, Grover Beach

As part of those efforts, Grover Beach held another public meeting Tuesday night to “continue the dialogue” with business owners, residents and homelessness advocacy representatives.

The meeting was the second of a series of scheduled workshops to talk about homelessness in the city. The first occurred in December, and the next will likely take place this summer.

About a dozen residents and business owners attended Tuesday’s meeting.

Several shared concerns about fires and fighting near homes, thefts and disturbances at city businesses, plus questions about the police response to those incidents.

“It’s a clash of rights,” David Smallwood, a real estate agent, said during the meeting. “They have rights, and business owners have rights, and homeowners have rights — wherein lies the problem.”

Police Chief John Peters said the city has increased its foot and bike patrols and added 28 security cameras along Grand Avenue to help increase the police presence in the area and decrease some of the more negative interactions between business owners and homeless individuals.

Grover Beach police and other agencies have also cleared out two of the city’s major homeless camps since January, a move that worries some local homeless advocates who say that because of limited housing and shelter resources, many of the camp residents don’t have anywhere to go once they are evicted from the camps.

I want to find a way to come to some real solutions because what we are doing now — and it’s not just us, it’s California as a whole, the country — we are chasing them from bush to bush.

Dee Torres-Hill, SLO Housing Connection

“I don’t agree that anyone should be living in bushes and in encampments and sanctuaries, but they’ve got to be somewhere,” said Dee Torres-Hill of SLO Housing Connection, which tries to house the county’s homeless.

Torres-Hill noted that her organization is still working with the people who were displaced in January when the city cleared out an encampment next to the train station, but because of limited affordable housing and shelter beds in the area, she’s been unable to find housing for them.

“The reason I came here tonight is, I want to find a way to come to some real solutions because what we are doing now — and it’s not just us, it’s California as a whole, the country — we are chasing them from bush to bush,” she said.

Torres-Hill said SLO Housing Connection will host a roundtable discussion at Hillside Church in Grover Beach on May 10 to brainstorm creative solutions to the problems. The discussion is scheduled for noon to 1:30 p.m., and food will be provided, she said.

Grover Beach moved residents out of a homeless encampment near the train station in January 2016. Here, Brandon Michael Williams, a homeless Grover Beach resident, talks about his day-to-day life.

SLO Housing Connection’s roundtable isn’t the only event scheduled in the next month that will aim to address homelessness.

Councilwoman Mariam Shah, the city’s representative on the county Homeless Services Oversight Council, said there will be a Mobile Assistance Services for the Homeless event at the South County Regional Center on May 24 where homeless individuals can go to replace their missing IDs, Social Security cards and birth certificates, get their pets vaccinated, and get free haircuts, hygiene kits and services to help reconnect them with their families living elsewhere.

Councilman Jeff Lee said that Fin’s Restaurant in Grover Beach will host a fundraiser from 5 to 9 p.m. May 5 to raise money for the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition.

Shoals said the city is working to bring together all of the South County governments at a future meeting to discuss “practical solutions” to homelessness in the region.

“We understand that these are short-term solutions, and we know that this is a social issue that is bigger than just Grover Beach, but we have been approached by residents and business owners and felt we needed to take some action,” Shoals said.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie

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