Though the title of its report is “Homelessness in San Luis Obispo County: Are We Solving the Problem?” the San Luis Obispo Grand Jury clearly answered, “No,” in a critical report of available services to local homeless residents.
The report addresses how to aid the homeless in the short- and long- term. To make its recommendations, the Grand Jurors interviewed related experts extensively, including county officials, staff members of local non-profit organizations who work with the homeless population, volunteers, and both male and female homeless people. They also visited nearby facilities and reviewed national and local reports on homelessness, according to the 17-page report.
Of the approximately 260,000 residents of San Luis Obispo County, about 3,829 (1.5 percent) were homeless in late January 2009, according to the San Luis Obispo County Homeless Enumeration Report. More than a third (36.1 percent) of the homeless counted in the enumeration lived in the city of San Luis Obispo.
Enumeration interviews from 342 homeless adults found that the county’s homeless population is “diverse in age, background and economic status”; there are also a variety of reasons why people are homeless, including housing and health issues.
The enumeration found that most of the county’s homeless are long-term residents. Of those counted, 56 percent said they had lived in the county for more than five years; 24 percent said they’d lived here for at least one year.
According to the Grand Jury report, those interviewed in January said they didn’t have a permanent residence because they were unable to pay rent (35 percent), were unemployed (20 percent) or suffered from low wages, divorce or substance abuse (15 percent each).
The Grand Jury reported that though the demand for low-income housing outstrips the supply, there are many obstacles to increasing the volume of low-income housing such as “zoning regulations on where such units can be built, restrictions on the number of units per acre that get approved, building codes that promote safety but inflate costs and political resistance from neighbors who fear for their property values.”
There are also health issues that may lead to homelessness.
In addition to dental and vision problems, joint injuries, and depression, about 30 percent of the interviewees reported a physical disability, 25 percent a mental disability and 9 percent substance abuse, according to the Grand Jury report.
The Grand Jury reported that the most important services for San Luis Obispo homeless residents are coordinated by the Community Action Partnership (CAPSLO).
This nonprofit organization runs Head Start programs, the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter, an “overflow” shelter that rotates monthly among religious organizations involved in the Interfaith Coalition for the Homeless and the Prado Day Center. The organization also provides case management services for homeless persons in the county.
It is funded by several sources including county and city grants; according to the Grand Jury, the organization spent $878,088 to run the Maxine Lewis Shelter and Prado Day Center and $244,895 on case management last year.
CAPSLO Deputy Director Grace McIntosh said existing services in the county just aren’t enough.
“Our main goal is to get people off the streets and into permanent housing,” McIntosh said. “The Prado Day Center is at maximum capacity and the Maxine Lewis shelter is falling apart.”
In April, the nonprofit served 6,500 people at the Prado Day Center, the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter and the facilities provided via the Interfaith Coalition for the Homeless. The center can serve 130 people daily, while the shelter sleeps 50 and Coalition facilities 35 overnight.
“We’re turning more and more people away,” McIntosh said. “We just don’t have room.”
CAPSLO cannot provide all the needed services, so homeless persons also rely on programs operated by the county government.
The County Departments of Social Services, Mental Health Services and Drug and Alcohol Services assist eligible homeless people but government staff rarely seek the homeless where they live. Instead, the homeless have to travel to the agencies, which is difficult given their precarious circumstances.
Also, the Grand Jury reported that some clients might need services from multiple providers, but the “coordination and integration of services by the primary providers (drug and alcohol services, mental health and the Department of Social Services) is less than ideal.”
To provide both housing and easier access to needed services, the county is currently in the process of approving a Homeless Services Center. If built, the center will provide overnight shelter and offices for county staff such as the Health Agency or Department of Social Services.
“The plan calls for 200 beds, a commercial kitchen capable of serving three meals a day, laundry facilities, showers, lockers and storage, offices for caseworkers, a classroom for children and community and multipurpose rooms,” according to the Grand Jury report.
Tim Blair, secretary of Friends of the Prado Day Center and author of http://twitter.com/HungerNoMore, said the center is supportive of the potential campus.
The lack of integration, he said, is a countywide problem that could be solved with the campus because people wouldn’t need to go all over town to get help.
While there are individuals who fit the transient stereotype, Blair said he’s seeing “more and more families who are just down on their luck and trying to get by … I think people would be surprised at how many women, children and families are in need.”
The San Luis Obispo Planning Commission approved a use permit for the Homeless Services Center June 23; the County Board of Supervisors also supports the plan. The center will be built on South Higuera Street adjacent to the Department of Social Services.
About local city government, the Grand Jury wrote that the homeless population’s needs have not yet been met, despite the allotment of nearly all of the city’s Community Block Grant public services funds for 20 years.
The Grand Jury also found fault with local government’s work regarding “Path to a Home: San Luis Obispo Countywide 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.” Published in October 2008, the 86-page document was written by a consultant who had drafted plans for other areas with the same framework and used local data.
Though the cities and county have “accepted” the 10-year plan, the Grand Jury reported that it has not been “adopted” because “adoption” would require governments to implement the plan’s objectives.
Former Grand Jury foreman Steve Martinez did not return calls by press time.