The man on the street corner holding the “Why lie I need a beer” sign is probably homeless, but he’s not the only one. Far from it. Yet, it is his face that’s in the public eye and, therefore, it is his face that the general public associate with homelessness.
If only the issue were that easy to define. But homelessness is not selective. Children are born homeless and elders die homeless, and on the Central Coast the man with the sign is just a preview of a largely unseen issue.
A one-night enumeration of homeless people throughout San Luis Obispo County counted 2,408 individuals without homes, 817 of whom were 21 or younger. The numbers are suspected to be much higher.
And for homeless children, disadvantages span far beyond a lack of shelter. The California Housing Law Project estimated that 43 percent of homeless children are molested and 66 percent are victims of violent abuse.
Local homeless shelters can help curb the numbers, but not without community support.
Earlier this year, the city of San Luis Obispo’s lone homeless shelter, the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter, was almost closed due to funding shortages. Thanks largely in part to efforts by the Cal Poly Community Center, the shelter ensured open doors until the end of June, said Lillian Judd, director of planning and program development at the Economic Opportunities Commission (EOC).
The near-closure of the shelter attracted media attention and brought to light to an issue that is all too often ignored. But homelessness shouldn’t be publicized only when it’s a big problem on the verge of getting worse.
And even with the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter open, the problem is far from solved. With all of the county’s shelters at full capacity, only 7 percent of the homeless population is housed, Judd said, leaving the needs of homeless families, including children, unfulfilled on the streets.
Homelessness has been a traditionally difficult issue to fundraise for, Judd said.
“In a way people are getting sympathy fatigue. They say ‘Hey, we’ve been helping the homeless for 10 years, when are you going to solve this problem?’” she said.
But homelessness is an ongoing national issue, and with the exorbitant cost of living on the Central Coast, many are only a paycheck away.
Why then, with so many feeling the same financial pressures that plague the homeless to a more detrimental degree, is the problem so unsupported?
Judd offered one answer: “The homeless are a mixed population, they’re not a warm and fuzzy population,” she said. “It’s not as warm and fuzzy as saving kittens or puppies.”
Cal Poly’s Beyond Shelter continued its service commitment to the homeless and attempted to dispel stereotypes with the recent Homeless Awareness Week.
But in order to make a serious change, the support needs to continue year-round, because the issue is not seasonal. The EOC is constantly looking for assistance with everything from gardening to tutoring to blanket donations to financial backing.
As of now, the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter has funding through June 30, but what happens come July?
Shelters, overcrowded as they are, can ensure temporary refuge for a small portion of the county’s homeless. The mothers, children and even the man on the street with the sign deserve that.
Katie Hofstetter is a journalism senior and a Mustang Daily reporter.