South County needs homeless services - and Grover Beach church is the right place

I began my education at Ocean View Elementary School in Arroyo Grande, where my kindergarten teacher taught me to treat others with respect, kindness, and compassion — no matter how hard it might be.

After all, you never know how hard it’s been for them, she reminded us. That lesson (along with some other key ones, like don’t drink soda) has stuck with me., which is why it saddens me to see the recent uproar surrounding a proposed partnership to place low-income housing and homeless services in a neighborhood near my old elementary school.

In public comment, private threads and published articles, many have said it’s only common sense that the Hillside Church property is a bad location, that naturally there’s a security concern. But — and here I turn to something I learned down the road at another excellent Lucia Mar Unified School District public school, Arroyo Grande High — there is nothing common sensical or natural about any social phenomenon, least of all prejudice.

Everything has its roots, its facts and its accompanying myths; our sense of what’s a bad location or a security concern are not objective givens but rather social assumptions, constructed of a sordid accumulation of half-truths and misplaced fears. I can’t dismantle class anxiety and the criminalization of poverty in a single op-ed, but I can try to debunk some of the concerns raised by vocal opponents of this particular proposal.

Let me be clear: I hold no ill will toward those opposed to this location. Indeed, many are longtime family friends from my Ocean View days; I understand they only feel they are trying to protect their neighborhood. But I hope by looking at the facts and confronting their own unintentional prejudices and discomfort with encountering the less well-off, they may make space for a new neighborhood — one that is both safer and more inclusive.

Let’s turn first to the ample concern about an “emergency warming shelter” at the proposed location. The 5 Cities Homeless Coalition (5CHC) has already been operating such a shelter in that location for the past two years (why the uproar only now?). It hosts approximately 20-25 guests each night, and only on cold and rainy nights in the winter — which means, given our excellent Central Coast weather, it was open 20 to 40 nights.

Calls to the Grover Beach Police Department have actually gone markedly down since the shelter opened in 2016. Before its opening, there were 33 calls for the neighborhood; after its opening, 21 calls in 2017 and down to 8 in 2018. There were only 3 calls during warming shelter hours in the past two years combined.

Even still, due to public uproar, the 5CHC has conceded to remove the warming shelter from the proposed plan. So now all we’re talking about is 20 units of supported, lower-income housing and a few dozen beds of transitional housing, plus a live-in administrator and staff providing services for those at risk for homelessness.

To even be admitted to the site, potential residents will have to work closely with a case manager, demonstrate responsibility and a desire to work toward their recovery. Getting these people off the streets and into stable homes is not only the right thing to do, it also is a boon to public safety. Time and again, research demonstrates that cities become safer as the unhoused are given a secure place to sleep.

Kyle Berlin Courtesy Photo

And the unhoused themselves (especially women who are survivors of domestic violence, veterans, and LGBT youth, all of whom are more likely to be homeless) are also made safer — a right, after all, that they don’t lose by virtue of being poor.

As for the transitional housing? It’s far from fleeting: For a period of up to two years, it is intended especially for very young families and pregnant mothers trying to get on their feet.

The proposed site is near a preschool and elementary school? Well, good. Their kids will have a nice walk to school. Indeed, LMUSD served nearly 200 foster and homeless students last year. (Are these who the opposition group Neighbors for Safety are so afraid of?)

The 5CHC has examined over a dozen potential South County locations in the past 10 years to no avail. Now they have a viable location, support from a dynamic spectrum of stakeholders and an opportunity for special state funding (acronym: HEAP); now is the time.

Did I mention that property values have actually been shown to increase in neighborhoods with supportive housing compared to those without? We have waited long enough. While we dither, our neighbors suffer.

It’s a sad fact that in today’s America, people are still afraid to be neighbors with someone who doesn’t share their demographics. But—and here’s a new social story I want to help construct—our communities are made stronger by their diversity, rendered more complex and resilient and capable and prosperous and compassionate the more inclusive they are.

Another sad irony is that all this hullaballoo is arising from a property that currently houses a church; how is it that the preaching of Christianity is celebrated, but its actual practice is resisted?

What buoys all these sadnesses, what gives me hope, is this vision: Down the street at Ocean View Elementary, some day soon the kids of young mothers living in the new housing complex will befriend the kids of parents who spearheaded the opposition; they will play together at recess, never knowing the difference, or never caring. Perhaps it would do us all well to go back to kindergarten.

Kyle Berlin was raised and educated in South County. He recently graduated from Princeton University and works as a social-practice artist.

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