South County needs homeless services — in the right place

Communities across the Central Coast region are struggling with increased levels of homelessness and associated impacts.

In response, San Luis Obispo County and various local municipalities recently declared a “homeless shelter crisis” to be eligible for some $4.8 million in Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP) state funding available to address the severe lack of homeless shelters and services countywide.

Local nonprofit homeless services providers are advancing proposals in coordination with local municipalities to take advantage of the HEAP funds and make meaningful progress toward solving the homeless crisis.

One proposal, located next to the Paso Robles wastewater treatment plant in an appropriately zoned area, will provide year-round social services, showers, laundry and 36 beds for overnight use only during the cold winter months. The proposed facility will be located next to Highway 101 and the Salinas River, an area known to attract large populations of homeless individuals, and away from residential neighborhoods and schools. The proposal appears to be on its way to becoming reality and providing much-needed homeless services.

In comparison, the joint proposal from the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition (5CHC) and People’s Self Help Housing unveiled at the Feb. 19 Grover Beach City Council meeting falls miserably short, particularly with regard to the proposed location at the Hillside Church within an existing residential neighborhood.

The Hillside homeless proposal will include the same services as the Paso Robles facility, but also requests “jail-to-community” services, 11 youth dormitory rooms with up to 44 beds year-round (i.e., in addition to a winter warming shelter like the Paso facility) and a second phase of 20 units of affordable housing operated by PSHH.

Neighboring residents, some of whom will be living directly adjacent to the proposed facility and only heard about the proposal through word-of-mouth, naturally have security concerns. The proposed site will be located within a short distance of a preschool, senior housing center and Ocean View elementary and is along a primary walking route for schoolkids.

As a result of the Feb. 19 Grover Beach City Council meeting, a letter was sent by Grover Beach to the SLO County Board of Supervisors in support of the proposal for HEAP funding consideration. In the letter, Grover Beach states that the Hillside proposal is “consistent with the City’s Land Use and Housing Element of the General Plan.”

Nothing could be further from reality.

The Hillside proposal flies in the face of both common sense and the city’s own General Plan. Grover Beach’s General Plan Housing Element includes an “Emergency Shelter Overlay Zone” to allow emergency shelters to be permitted in a commercial/industrial area in the southwest corner of the city.

The clear intent of the overlay zone is to locate shelters in an underutilized area, close to transit and services, close to the population it will serve and away from residential neighborhoods. It further specifies that “nearby residential neighborhoods must be adequately buffered from the potential impacts of the proposed shelter.”

The Grover Beach Housing Element defines emergency shelters as “facilities for the temporary overnight shelter of indigents operated by a public or nonprofit.”

A warming center as proposed at the Hillside property is by definition an emergency shelter. In case there is any doubt, warming centers are explicitly referenced in the development standards for emergency shelters. During the Feb. 19 meeting, project proponents were careful to specify that the proposal is not a shelter since it includes transitional and permanent housing — because admitting so would be an acknowledgement that it is at odds with the General Plan.

But that’s like saying a Walmart Supercenter is not a Walmart.

Grover Beach goes on to say in its letter that the proposal would require a General Plan amendment, which raises the question: If the proposal is consistent with the Grover Beach General Plan, why does it require a General Plan amendment?

The entire South County region agrees homelessness is a crisis that requires a compassionate response.

However, in its eagerness to avail itself of some of the $4.8 million in HEAP funds, Grover Beach is trampling on its own General Plan and the concerns of its residents and neighbors.

City leaders would have been hard-pressed to find a more inappropriate location if they were trying to do so.

They need look no further than Paso Robles to see where a regional homeless services center should be located. The Hillside property is simply not a viable location for the proposed facility and city leaders are doing a disservice to the homeless with their continued support this ill-conceived plan.

Chris Barrett, Don Edwards and Becky Mosgofian are members of Neighbors for safety, a group opposing a plan to expand homeless services at Hillside Church in Grover Beach.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune