Editorials

Despite lower count, shortage of housing a problem in SLO county

From left, Susan Joslin, Tony Gagnina and Carey Vasquez look for homeless people in in Atascadero on Monday, Jan. 26, 2015, during a biennial countywide survey.
From left, Susan Joslin, Tony Gagnina and Carey Vasquez look for homeless people in in Atascadero on Monday, Jan. 26, 2015, during a biennial countywide survey. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

There is encouraging news in the latest report on homelessness in San Luis Obispo County, including an overall decline in the number of homeless people here and an increase in programs aimed at getting people off the streets and into permanent homes.

Yet a word of caution is in order: Homeless population data can be extremely hard to collect, so we shouldn’t rely too much on a single number.

That said, the latest count, taken in the early-morning hours of Jan. 26, 2015, shows a 30 percent drop in the number of homeless people in San Luis Obispo County compared with the previous count in 2013. This year, 1,515 homeless people were counted; in 2013, the number was 2,186.

Here’s how the counts are conducted: Teams of volunteers fan out in all communities, looking for homeless encampments and for people living in their cars, under bridges, in creek beds and other out-of-the-way areas. Some teams are accompanied by guides who are homeless or have contacts within the homeless community, and are able to steer teams toward likely locations.

Information gathered by the teams is combined with other data, such as counts from local homeless shelters.

Still, it’s a hit-or-miss system, as the report acknowledges.

“For a variety of reasons, homeless persons generally do not want to be seen and make concerted efforts to avoid detection,” it says. “Regardless of how successful outreach efforts are, an undercount of the homeless population will result, especially of hard-to-reach subpopulations such as families and youth.”

Remember, too, that this is a “snapshot” of a single day. Census counts can miss homeless people who may be temporarily staying with friends or may have scraped together enough money for a brief stay in a motel but will soon be back out on the streets.

On top of that, homeless advocates believe that a few homeless encampments in South County were broken up prior to the January count, which may have contributed to low numbers there.

Bottom line: “It is not and never will be an exact count of everyone who is homeless in the county,” said Laurel Weir, county Homeless Services coordinator. “What it can tell us is something about the trends.”

Still, the lower numbers do indicate that housing assistance programs are working to some degree, especially programs for veterans, families and chronically homeless individuals.

But there is a limit to how successful such programs can be, as we’re still facing a fundamental problem in San Luis Obispo County: A lack of available lower-cost housing, especially apar tments and other multifamily units.

Without an increase in housing units and/or a willingness of apartment owners to rent to people trying to make their way out of homelessness, the numbers won’t budge much.

We recognize that a housing shortage can’t be made up overnight. But as we head into an election year, this is an excellent opportunity for candidates to let voters know how they plan to address the issue, and for officials already in office to revisit affordable housing goals.

Even if 1,515 is an accurate number, that is much too high. The only way we’re going to appreciably reduce it is by providing what homeless people need: permanent housing.

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE FINDINGS OF THE 2015 HOMELESS CENSUS IN SLO COUNTY

There was an increase in the number of people spending the night in shelters.

There were 392 people in shelters in the 2015 census, compared with 235 in 2013.

The report attributes the increase to the addition of shelter beds. ECHO added 18 beds in North County, and a new CalWORKS program is providing housing for homeless families with children; at the time of the census, 61 families were housed in motel rooms through the CalWORKS program.

There was a 45 percent decline in the number of homeless veterans, to 130 in 2015, down from 239 in 2013.

That’s great news, and a credit to homeless services organizations that have been working hard to develop programs and secure funding to get homeless veterans into permanent housing. The efforts are paying off: Between January 2013 and January 2015, 70 SLO County homeless veterans were housed through a program jointly funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Veterans Administration.

The number of homeless families with children dropped to 112, compared with 199 in 2013.

There is a caveat: Because of difficulties with meeting verification requirements, the recent study did not include information from the county Office of Education, which tracks homelessness among schoolchildren. Had that information been included, the count could have been higher.

Unlike 2013, the city of San Luis Obispo did not have the largest number of homeless people.

The census showed North County with the largest population — 629 — compared with 482 in San Luis Obispo.

The North Coast had the lowest population — 146 — and South County had 258.

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