The problem of homelessness “is disturbing, demoralizing and depressing,” San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson told about 125 people at a June 19 North Coast Advisory Council forum on the issue.
On one hand is the desire of many to help the “unsheltered population,” as homeless people are sometimes defined. On the other hand, there are pervasive problems caused by some of the homeless, such as degradation of the forest and creeks, fire danger, rowdiness and defecation on downtown streets.
“We have a conflict between compassion and ‘not in my backyard’ attitudes,” Sheriff’s Cmdr. Michael Manuele said
Deputy Toby De Pew of the Sheriff’s Community Action Team for the homeless defined three groups of the people they serve: “The have nots, who are financially destitute; the will nots, who will not work or follow rules; and the cannots, who are mentally ill, often incapable of work.”
Laurel Weir of county Social Services said there are transitionally homeless who find themselves temporarily in need of shelter, and the chronically homeless, who make up 30 to 35% of the entire homeless population. Many homeless have no identification papers and no home address, making it difficult to be hired for jobs.
And some “working poor” (who may not be included in counts of the homeless) don’t make enough money to pay for food, medicine, transportation and other necessities, let alone housing, assuming they can find the latter. Some gasp-worthy statistics and descriptions were shared at the forum by representatives of 14 different agencies and groups ranging from law enforcement, local and county government, nonprofits, churches, schools and parks.
For instance, according to the various officials:
• An assessment by the Cambria Community Services District in February-to-June this year found 50 homeless campsites, many on East Ranch, near the dog park and behind the Catholic Church. Some of the sites have been abandoned, or are being used by the homeless as places to store some of their belongings. CCSD estimates from 15 to 20 people living on district property, with eight to 10 of them living on Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. Of those, seven are men at least 50 years of age, two are woman in that age bracket and one man was in his mid-30s. “Although some are working part time, they do not earn enough to pay rent,” said CCSD’s Carlos Mendoza.
• Of the 606 students on Coast Unified School District campuses, 15% (or 91 students) are classified as homeless and 73.8% (or 447 students) are classified as being in the lower socio-economic community. Some students are housed in motel rooms, and many families share one dwelling, or live in campgrounds or in cars.
• Cesilia Lomeli, nurse practitioner at Cambria Community Health Centers clinic, said she regularly treats and serves the homeless. “Last month, we saw 644 patients in Cambria, ranging in age from two days to 93 years old. We are connecting the homeless to the services. We are committed to providing services here.”
• All forum participants agreed that the biggest cause of homelessness is the cost of housing and the lack of rentals. Only about 1% of California homes are rentals.
• Homelessness is not illegal. Nor are sleeping on public lands, panhandling or living in cars on public streets. Belongings of the homeless are not trash and cannot be disposed of without their permission. Manuele said the Martin v. Boise judicial decision “provides that the homeless cannot be prosecuted and cannot be removed from public property as long as there is no reasonably available alternative.
Camping in a car is not illegal unless the car is parked in a red zone or driveway. People can sleep in public places as long as they pose no safety or health hazard.”
• From 15 to 34% of the homeless are mentally ill.
• San Luis Obispo County Behavioral Health serves about 2,500 adults a year, plus 1,000 to 1,500 children.
• In one year, according to a recent survey that tracked the services used by one homeless person for a year, he/she used an estimated $1.7 million in services, such as ambulance, police, law enforcement, mental health and emergency rooms. How can average citizens help? Instead of giving money, offer a prepaid cellphone, so the homeless can call home.
Find ways to get the homeless to the services they need, such as showers and social services, most of which are in San Luis Obispo. As Gibson concluded, the forum provided information, “hope and inspiration.”
The rest is up to the community, the agencies, groups and the homeless.