Photos from the Vault

In 1988, SLO’s first homeless shelter was a bus

Gabriel Sweeney III, left, gathers his things after the Zedakah House bus stops at El Chorro Regional Park north of San Luis Obispo in 1988. Sweeny prefers sleeping outdoors to using the church shelters.
Gabriel Sweeney III, left, gathers his things after the Zedakah House bus stops at El Chorro Regional Park north of San Luis Obispo in 1988. Sweeny prefers sleeping outdoors to using the church shelters. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A health crisis. A lost job. Addiction. Domestic abuse. Post-traumatic stress.

Reasons for living on the street are as different as the people who find themselves there:

Once someone is out of the mainstream there are barriers to returning. Deposits, phone service and mailing addresses all become problems harder to solve.

Usually, the solutions require resilience, persistence and creativity.

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The Zedakah House bus picks up homeless people in San Luis Obispo to spend the night camping at El Chorro Regional Park. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

As real estate costs skyrocket in the region, communities are seeking more of those solutions. Santa Barbara, for instance, has an innovative program that allows the homeless to stay overnight in parking lots, unused during those hours.

San Luis Obispo County’s first homeless shelter, Zedakah House, had wheels. Its name is derived from a Hebrew word meaning righteousness manifested by acts of charity.

Tribune reporter Dan Parker wrote this story on Feb. 2, 1988, as the county’s support for the homeless was in transition.

Homeless bid benefactor a fond farewell

“Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey!” said Stuart Meeks, stepping up onto a picnic table.

The burly, mustachioed Meeks was holding his hands up, trying to quiet a group of other homeless people standing around him. His words sent puffs of breath into the cold night air. His face was lit by the glow of a nearby campfire.

“Hey, I think we ought to say that we really appreciate what Brad’s done,” said Meeks, pointing to a small, bearded man sitting on the edge of the picnic table.

The man, Brad Goans, looked a little embarrassed.

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Brad Goans came up with the idea of a San Luis Obispo County homeless shelter on a bus in 1988. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

“We were going to bet you a plaque, but nobody could panhandle enough money,” Meeks joked. Then he added, “I love ya, Brad.”

“And we’ll miss you,” said Tracy Davis, a 22-year-old homeless woman.

“If Gary was here tonight, he’d say the same thing,” Davis said. She was referring to Gary Kay, a local homeless man who died in November of chronic alcoholism.

“I’ll miss you guys too,” Goans told the group.

It was Monday night, and Goans had just driven a bus loaded with 15 homeless people to El Chorro Regional Park, northwest of San Luis Obispo. They were going to spend the night in the bus they were riding in, or another bus that was already parked at the park. Just as they had done almost every night for a year.

But Monday night was the beginning of the end of the bus service known as Zedakah House. Money had run out.

And Goans, who started the service with only a three-month stint in mind, has run out of energy. Although money ran out Monday night, Goans said he would continue to operate the service only one more week.

Goans said Monday that work between local government and the Salvation Army is going so well that a new shelter could come that quickly.

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Stuart Meeks stands on a picnic table to pay tribute to efforts of Brad Goans to keep the Zedakah House bus shelter going in 1988. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

But it was Goans who almost single-handedly provided San Luis Obispo with its first homeless shelter — albeit a bus.

He bought and refurbished an old school bus and began picking up homeless people every night at Mitchell Park in San Luis Obispo.

Goans brought them to Rancho El Chorro, where they spent the night aboard the bus. A second bus was added later.

In November, a group called the “People’s Shelter” began operating shelters in churches. In its screening process, People’s Shelter has excluded many people who appeared mentally ill or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Zedekah House didn’t make such distinctions.

Yet, the atmosphere among the Zedakah House group Monday night was family-like. Only one man appeared drunk, and he didn’t cause any trouble.

The group agreed that on a regular night, about half of the people on the bus are high on something.

Homeless Tracy Davis said there was a reason for everyone’s sobriety Monday night, possibly the night of the last bus run.

“We want to remember it,” she said.

Like they do every night at the park, the group lit a fire in a barbecue pit and set cans of soup on the grill to cook. This night, however, they also cooked three steaks bought by bus supervisors.

The mood was cheerful, but few knew what they would do for shelter when the bus stops running.

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“I’ll sleep anywhere I have to,” Meeks said.

“I’m just like Stuart,” said Gabriel Sweeny III. “I’ll sleep on the street too.”

Most reported having reservations about going to the People’s Shelter.

Some said they felt they were asked too many personal questions during the shelter’s screening procedure.

One former bus rider will have his own roof to sleep under tonight.

Gary Gorason, 34, said he was sleeping on the bus at this time last year. He said he was an alcoholic and an intravenous drug addict.

He entered a treatment center in August, beat his habits and got his own apartment in November. Now he works as a auto detailer and helps drive the Zedakah House buses.

“It is a lot better way to live,” he said Monday night as he stood with his old friends next to the campfire.

Zedakah House has served its purpose as an emergency measure, said Scott Raaberg, who helps supervise the bus guests each night.

Some of these people would not have survived if it wouldn’t have been for the bus,” he said.

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Wild Child heats up a can of mushroom soup on a grill at El Chorro Regional Park as Zedakah House bus riders celebrate their last night together in 1988. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp
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