A recent increase of houseless residents living in public squares like Mitchell Park spurred San Luis Obispo city government to ban camping-style tents on park grounds.
According to Greg Avakian, Director of Parks and Recreation for the city of San Luis Obispo, resident complaints and concerns for maintenance and safety have resulted in a stronger approach to issues surrounding unhoused individuals.
Mitchell Park, a historic downtown location known for its gazebo, has been the site of increased tent camping over the past several weeks. Those camping in tents have been violating the park’s closure to the public from the hours of 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
“We’ve had an increase in our unhoused using tents in parks where we hadn’t seen them before,” Avakian said. “A lot of our community members in the neighborhoods have reported [tent camping] as a safety concern for families and for their children.”
The city said houseless individuals are violating an existing city code which states that it is unlawful for individuals to put structures such as tents on public places, including parks.
Over the past several weeks police officers have made contact with individuals using tents to inform them of the violation. This is due in part to the city council’s recent approval of Pickleball courts in Mitchell Park, which came amid an overwhelming wave of community concerns. Concerns included the lack of space the courts will leave for unsheltered residents.
On Feb. 19 SLOPD arrested three unhoused residents on charges which Avakian said are drug-related and not because the individuals were encroaching on the public space.
Houseless advocates argue that these arrests, and the new tent camping ban, are in direct violation of CDC COVID-19 guidelines for houseless encampments that state, “if individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.”
The situation was further heightened on Feb. 21 when a man was found dead in the park. According to SLO Street Medics, a group of local volunteers who work to provide medical care to the houseless population, the man was an ‘unhoused community member.’
While Avakian points to the 40 Prado warming shelter as an alternative to tent camping, the number of beds has been limited to only 14 people on a first come first serve basis due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We’re trying to do everything we can but it’s a delicate and complex issue,” Avakian said.
At a Feb. 16 meeting, San Luis Obispo City Council heard from community members who criticized the enforcement against tents. Mayor Heidi Harmon has recently added the issue of homelessness to the list of major city goals, but city officials said that San Luis Obispo County is responsible for social services within the community.
“I do want to make sure people know that we actually do a lot on homelessness. I think it often goes unnoticed because the problem continues to grow,” Harmon said. “It needs to be more of a focus.”