Safe parking programs would benefit homeless

Pinning down the number of homeless people in our county is a near-impossible task; experts point out that the best we can do is provide a “snapshot in time.” The most recent “snapshot” was taken Jan. 26, 2011, when 3,774 homeless individuals were counted in San Luis Obispo County — nearly half of them children.

Given the economy, that number has almost certainly increased. Yet we have not been able to keep pace by providing more services and facilities — at least not yet. Major efforts are under way to build new facilities in two communities: a homeless campus on Prado Road in San Luis Obispo and a day shelter in the Five Cities area.

Both projects are years away, and in the meantime, there’s an immediate need to provide at least some form of rudimentary shelter, especially in these cold and wet winter months. Opening “warming stations” on the bitterest nights is a start, but we can do more. One of the easiest and least expensive alternatives is to offer safe, secure parking lots for people living out of their cars and campers.

Other communities, including Santa Barbara, have been doing this for years, but it has yet to be tried in San Luis Obispo County, at least on a formal basis.

That could soon change. We say it’s about time.

At least two organizations — Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County (CAPSLO) and the Five Cities Homeless Coalition — are working on starting safe parking programs for people living out of their vehicles.

Dee Torres, homeless services coordinator for CAPSLO, is working with the city of San Luis Obispo on a proposal to allow up to 25 vehicles to park in the Prado Day Center lot. A portable toilet would be provided, and though there would be no on-site staff, Torres is working with the SLO Police Department to provide patrols.

It would start as a pilot program, she said, for about three or four months. First priority would go to those willing to sign up for case management services.

In the South County, a similar proposal is in the works to allow parking at a church in Arroyo Grande; that’s expected to go before the City Council in the coming months.

We strongly urge support for both of these projects.

Here’s why:

Many families already are living in their vehicles; cruise around at night and chances are you’ll find a row of cars and campers parked on the outskirts of your community.

That’s creating a sanitation issue in some areas. And depending on local ordinances, it’s putting overnight parkers at risk of violating the law — as if they don’t already have enough to worry about.

A safe parking program would solve those issues, and it would also put homeless families in contact with case managers who could help them on the path to a permanent home. That’s important, because case management has proved to be an effective, long-term solution to homelessness.

Again, we commend and support efforts to provide brick-and-mortar homeless shelters, but we also need to look for creative, cost-effective ways to help.

This is one of them; we urge San Luis Obispo and Arroyo Grande to give safe parking proposals a green light.

Editorials are the opinion of The Tribune.