Homelessness issues coming to Council

A paper sign hangs in the North County Library lobby giving direction to a public forum Nov. 15. (Photo by Camas Frank)

NORTH COUNTY — “Excuse me, Sir,” the woman said, “do you think it's safe for me to sleep under there?”

In the week before Thanksgiving, there’s nothing quite so powerful as giving one pause to think about being asked by someone for reassurance while they consider spending the night under the Lewis Avenue bridge at the corner of Capistrano.

In reflection, it gives a new meaning to being grateful for what one has when confronted by those who have crossed to the other side of an imperceptible divide. In the moment an answer was more practical, “I don’t know. I guess it depends if you want to be around people or not, I don’t think you can stay the whole night.”

In the dark, bundled against the evening chill with a messenger bag and standing at Atascadero Transit Center waiting for the last Regional Transit Authority bus south of the night, there was nothing to differentiate a small town reporter coming back from a meeting from someone who might ask that question. Perhaps nothing either to suggest that one wouldn’t know the answer first hand.

With that smallest glimpse into what life is like at a certain strata of society and a certain time of night, it's much easier to find compassion in a question other than, “spare some change?”

“Would it be safe for me to sleep…,” is a poignant question faced nightly by, at last estimate, some 1,100 to 1,200 people in San Luis Obispo County.

In total there are approximately 150 beds available, only 50 of those in the North County, and those require case management to access.

So the correct answer to the question, rather than weighing the relative merits of sleeping near people under a bridge versus hoping to be unmolested in isolation somewhere for the night would have been, “try calling the El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO) at 805-462-3663.”

But in reality, the mind doesn’t work that quickly and the outcome would have likely been the same, as ECHO might have been able to help her with food, a shower and a change of clothes in the morning but there was no guarantee of an emergency bed.

Wendy Lewis, president at ECHO explains that many believe the actual numbers for homelessness in the area are actually much higher but the day-long count that occurs in January every two years was likely skewed downwards by people hiding from bad weather in 2017. Activists and volunteers for the homeless community are gearing up again for the 2019 count which may give a better picture of what life is like on the streets.

Neither Lewis nor the woman asking the original question were in a public forum on the topic held by the County, in of all places, the library building just across the street from the bridge and the Transit Center on Nov. 15.

Despite being billed as a public outreach event to determine where the nearly $5 million in state-allocated Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP) grant money should be spent in the next financial year, attendance at the meeting was limited mainly to representatives of nonprofit or faith-based organizations already involved in the issue, with no members of the general public or representatives of the homeless community whose needs were being discussed.

Anyone not already planning on attendance wouldn’t have known anything worth their time and energy was happening, with the main doors of the building closed after hours and only a paper sign inside for direction.

However, previous meetings had included, “stakeholder meetings,” a youth forum and focus group, said Allison Ruck, a planner with the County Department of Planning and Building and Laurel Weir their homeless services coordinator.

An online survey mirroring one distributed at the meeting asked participants to rank in priority (1-5, low to high): street outreach and engagement; relocation and stabilization services; new permanent supportive housing; shared housing for homeless persons; transitional housing for youth; case managers for housing placement; transitional housing for [Domestic Violence] survivors; short-term rental assistance; recovery housing for people with addictions; expanding emergency beds/safe parking; affordable housing for homeless persons/ transitional housing for those released from jail; and respite care.

To date, they’d had 300 responses on the survey which was online through Nov. 18.

A lot to digest even for those well versed in what challenges face the homeless in finding a place on their own, but adding to it, explained Ruck, that the money must flow through the County as an administrator putting out an RFP (Request For Proposals) and that the majority of it has the strings attached, that it must go toward capital projects rather than temporary services.

On top of that, any organization applying for the funding must be in a jurisdiction where a homeless shelter crisis has been officially declared.

That’s a condition, City Councilman Charles Bourbeau reminded the Council at the conclusion of their most recent regular meeting, with an expiration date fast approaching.

If ECHO is to file a proposal for some of the HEAP money, for instance, which Lewis says they’d like to do, then the City of Atascadero needs to pass a resolution declaring a shelter emergency before Dec. 1.

Bourbeau explained at the public forum that he is the representative on homeless service issues for the Council but that doesn’t necessarily make him an advocate, that’s up to individuals to come lobby the Council themselves.

He later added that based on what he knew about the resolution needed he didn’t see a reason not to vote for it, but the matter is up for consideration at their next meeting Nov. 27.

Some unknown elements that the Council would want to consider would be, how for instance, an emergency resolution might affect anti-camping ordinances.

Making the Nov. 27 meeting an even bigger event for advocates of the homeless community will be the coincidental timing of consideration of the proposal to use the Armoury building behind the historic Printery as an emergency shelter.

As of press time, the staff reports for those agenda items were not yet available but the Atascadero City Manager’s Office confirmed that they were slated for the meeting.

“In terms of actual real-world results right now,” said Bourbeau, “I think [the Armoury proposal is likely to have more impact than the resolution.”

Perhaps in November 2019, “would it be safe for me to sleep?,” will have a better answer.

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