Letters to the Editor

‘Shelter crisis’ declaration is not enough to keep SLO County’s homeless safe this winter

Tony Gagnina, left, talks to two men during last year’s homeless census.
Tony Gagnina, left, talks to two men during last year’s homeless census. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The Tribune’s editorial published Jan. 10 calls for us to consider declaring a “shelter crisis” under state law, which enables public agencies to waive certain regulations for our facilities in order to expand emergency shelter for our homeless population. Declaring a “shelter crisis” would draw attention to difficulties facing our homeless population; however, it would not obligate any agency to open our facilities to help shelter homeless people.

I’ve been working on homeless issues since I took office on the San Luis Obispo City Council in December 2008. At that time, an ad-hoc group of about 40 people had just adopted the county’s first 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, and the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors established the Homeless Services Oversight Council (HSOC) as a permanent advisory body to the board. I’ve served as the city’s representative on HSOC ever since, and I have chaired its Housing Committee for the past four years. I’ve asked for such a declaration to be considered by the county’s HSOC Housing Committee at our Jan. 19 meeting, and the full HSOC will consider whether to so advise the board on the following day.

The city of San Luis Obispo works closely with the county to provide homeless services and shelter, and with many partners such as Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County (CAPSLO). Over the years, in late fall and early winter, we’ve stepped up our efforts to provide emergency shelter, safe parking areas and warming stations to accommodate homeless people. Yet these efforts don’t seem to be enough.

While declaring a “shelter crisis” would be helpful, it’s insufficient by itself to meet our current needs. In expanding our warming stations, we need to consider: Under what weather conditions should they be available — and should these conditions be uniform countywide? How can we provide adequate trained staff and volunteers, as well as cots, blankets, sleeping bags, etc.? How can we ensure that such stations are operated safely; should we screen out sex offenders or those with known adverse behaviors that endanger other clients, the staff or themselves?

While declaring a “shelter crisis” would be helpful, it’s insufficient by itself to meet our current needs.

John Ashbaugh

Clearly, we must work collaboratively to ensure that these warming stations are both functional and safe. As The Tribune has pointed out, various agencies have in place several warming stations at the Prado Day Center, on Grand Avenue in Arroyo Grande, and at rotating churches in Paso Robles and Atascadero. The warming station at our Prado Day Center can accommodate 40 people. So far, peak usage has been 31; the other three stations are smaller but closer to capacity. We know that more people are “out there” who need shelter, and there is a continuing need in this El Niño winter.

We must, however, acknowledge that merely declaring such a crisis and opening warming stations doesn’t solve the problem of homelessness. We must continue to focus on the long-term problem, and work on the available solutions to homelessness. The good news is that we are making steady progress in reducing the overall incidence of homelessness in our county: The 2015 census of our homeless population showed a 31 percent reduction in the number of homeless people from 2013, and a 45 percent plunge in veteran homelessness.

In late 2014, HSOC had set out as a major goal to reduce veteran homelessness to “functional zero,” and we’ve already cut that number in half. We’re getting great help from the Housing Authority of SLO, the VA, county Social Services, and nonprofit partners such as CAPSLO, Transitions-Mental Health, El Camino Homeless Organization, 5 Cities Homeless Coalition, Paso Cares and other groups.

Perhaps the most visible sign of progress will be the long-awaited groundbreaking for the new Homeless Services Center at 40 Prado Road later this year.

At our November 2015 meeting, HSOC adopted two more goals: To reduce homelessness among families with children and among the chronically homeless to “functional zero” by 2017 and 2018, respectively. In order to meet these goals, we have placed additional emphasis on reserving housing vouchers for chronically homeless people and on creating short-term rental subsidies to try to help homeless families get back on their feet.

Perhaps the most visible sign of progress will be the long-awaited groundbreaking for the new Homeless Services Center at 40 Prado Road later this year, combining the Maxine Lewis Homeless Shelter on Orcutt Road with the Prado Day Center. The Prado Center is slated for removal because of needed upgrades to the Water Resources Recovery Facility, but when the new Homeless Services Center is built, we’ll double the shelter capacity and provide 24-hour, “one-stop” services such as counseling, employment referrals and more. Moreover, our homeless clients will no longer have to traverse a 3-mile circuit daily between the two sites.

How can you help? Funds are still being sought by the SLO Homeless Foundation for construction of the Homeless Services Center; please visit its website at 40prado.org.

Donations are always needed for the existing Prado Day Center; contribute or volunteer online at http://pradodaycenter.org. And purchase tickets for the annual Culinary Carnival benefitting the Prado Day Center at the San Luis Obispo Veterans Memorial Building from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Feb. 6. Volunteers are always needed, and training is available; call CAPSLO at 781-3993 for more information.

Life is never easy for the homeless members of our community, but we can all make it a little easier just by keeping them warm and dry — but The Tribune editorial is absolutely right: It takes more than merely declaring a “shelter crisis.”

John B. Ashbaugh is a San Luis Obispo city councilman.

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