Special Interest / Aug/Sep 2012
Understanding Homelessness in SLO
Wading into an honest conversation about homelessness is fraught with risk. Almost by definition, an “us” and “them” dynamic arises. But, with the homeless debate heating up in San Luis Obispo, we decided to dig into the issue and attempt to bring the facts to light…
Yes, it is a fact that homelessness is on the rise in San Luis Obispo. Although, by its transient nature, it is very difficult to obtain an accurate census of this segment of the population. Local officials estimate that there are currently more than 1,000 homeless with approximately half living in vehicles. Starting about a year ago, according to officials, there was a sharp rise in homelessness which accelerated over the last six months. The issue reached a fever pitch this summer when, in response to a lawsuit brought by local attorneys Stewart Jenkins and Saro Rizzo on behalf of the SLO Homeless Alliance, Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall ruled, in essence, that it was unlawful to prohibit people from sleeping in their cars on public streets. The city council responded immediately by passing a new ordinance under a different set of code, effectively allowing the police department to continue to cite people for sleeping in their vehicles (tickets can be as much as $500). All of this took place in the shadow of a renewed debate over the wisdom of building a new homeless shelter on South Higuera near the Department of Social Services. The proposed 200 bed facility, originally approved in 2009, is opposed by many nearby business owners who are concerned that this will create a homeless “mecca,” arguing that “if you build it, they will come.” Their fear is that more homeless people in the area will drive away their customers.
As the county seat, San Luis Obispo primarily bears the burden of supporting this segment of the population and also houses the Department of Social Services where much of the county-based transient population travels to pick up their social security checks (52% receive assistance according to California’s 2009 Homeless Count) and obtain other government services. After the checks are dispersed and social services rendered, there is a well-traveled path from South Higuera down Prado Road to the Prado Day Center for meals and other services during the day and then typically out to local creeks or vehicles or the Maxine Lewis Memorial Night Shelter on Orcutt Road for an overnight stay. The cycle repeats, but it generally begins in the vicinity of the intersection of Prado and South Higuera. To simplify the objection of some businesses in the area: expand available services and word will get out that this is a great place to be homeless. And once demand again outstrips supply, we will be left with a bigger problem. But, maybe there is a different solution.
In 2006, Malcolm Gladwell penned a controversial article for The New Yorker titled “Million-Dollar Murray: Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage.” Gladwell tells the story of Murray Barr, a likeable transient with a severe drinking problem. During a study commissioned by the City of Reno where Barr lived, it was determined that the value he had received in health care, food, goods and services was over a million dollars during the ten years the research was conducted. Gladwell, citing this study, argues that it would be cheaper and more efficient to deal with chronic homelessness by building and funding supportive housing. In other words, instead of managing homelessness with soup kitchens and temporary shelters, why not invest in permanent housing with live-in services and structure. This was a format, apparently, where Barr had thrived.
It appears that the Obama Administration has been paying attention. In a recent appearance on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Shaun Donovan, said, “The thing we finally figured out is that it’s actually, not only better for people, but cheaper to solve homelessness than it is to put a band-aid on it.” He then claimed that “between shelters, emergency rooms, and jails it costs about $40,000 a year for a homeless person to be on the street.” Some research on that figure—$40,000—leads one to believe that it may actually be on the low end of the spectrum. For example, Philip Mangano, formerly the Homelessness Czar under President George W. Bush, puts the cost at somewhere between $35,000 and $150,000 annually. While they may quibble on the current cost, both Donovan and Mangano assert that chronic homelessness can be ended for much less. An idea called “housing first” came about during the 1990’s in New York City and spawned the supportive housing program in Reno where Barr thrived (Barr eventually returned to the streets after the pilot program was discontinued for lack of funding). Donovan and Mangano do agree on these numbers: the cost to administer a group home that offers holistic services for the chronically homeless ranging from drug treatment, to job placement, to psychiatric services, would cost somewhere between $13,000 to $25,000 per year per individual and would effectively end homelessness at a fraction of the cost that we are currently paying to manage it.
But, to really understand the homeless situation here in San Luis Obispo, you first have to understand the demographics because they are unique and distinct from other communities, such as Reno and New York. People who deal first-hand with this issue locally refer to the three subsets of the homeless population here as the “have-nots,” the “can-nots,” and the “will-nots.” The “have-nots” are people who have lost their jobs, or experienced some other setback or misfortune such as divorce. They usually enter and exit homelessness relatively quickly. The next category is known as the “can-nots,” people who are just not able to provide shelter for themselves; typically they are mentally ill. The genesis of this group came about in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy signed the Mental Health Act, a law that set into motion “deinstitutionalization,” which was intended to be a cost-cutting process that favored “community release” of mentally ill patients. In California deinstitutionalization enjoyed support under Governor Pat Brown and reached a crescendo in 1967 when Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act which released massive numbers of psychiatric patients during the 70’s and 80’s. The United States went from 550,000 mental hospital patients in 1955 to just 40,000 today (to put it in perspective, the general population nearly doubled during that same period). It is estimated that those displaced patients now represent between 30% and 50% of the American homeless population. The fact is that the “can-nots” are the direct result of those policies. And, then there are the “will-nots”—they are individuals that are of sound body and mind, but, for different reasons, are unwilling to seek permanent housing.
It would be reasonable to assume that the sudden increase in homelessness came as a result of the lingering effects of a still-struggling economy. Logically, it would be driven by the “have-nots” who are experiencing job loss, or, perhaps, loss of the safety net provided by unemployment checks that had finally run out. However, according to Dee Torres, Program Director at the Prado Day Center, “We usually aren’t seeing people that have lost their jobs and are suddenly out on the street. Those individuals often have family to turn to, or support from friends. We deal more with chronic homelessness, people with physical disabilities, mental illness including many who are self-medicating [and have] drug addictions.”
“The goal,” continues Torres, “is self-sufficiency, and the first step in that process is getting them to accept case management.” Accepting case management is a big deal because, not only does the individual cede much of their independence to a social services case worker, they also must turn over a big chunk of their income. If they are receiving social security, it is as much as 70%, which is saved on their behalf to help them accumulate enough funds to secure permanent housing. During this period of case management very little, if any, discretionary income is needed, however, as meals are provided, a roof is overhead, and most of the basic needs are met. The case manager also serves as a gateway to secure other services on their behalf from other government entities and local non-profits. “If we can get someone into case management, we have a 100% success rate,” claims Torres. “But, they have to want to do it; they have to want to get out of the situation that they are in.”
And while they are in case management, or even if they are not—it is not a requirement—the local homeless population can get a meal at the Prado Day Center and a bed to sleep in at the Maxine Lewis Memorial Night Shelter. Both facilities are operated by Community Action Partners of San Luis Obispo County (CAP SLO) and neither require any drug testing—as long as visitors abide by some basic rules and are non-threatening to others they are welcome. The overnight facility has 50 beds year-round, but is able to handle an overflow of 25 to 35 beds through their partnership with the Interfaith Coalition, which is made up of a group of local churches. In addition to a place to sleep and free meals, the Prado Day Center provides services such as laundry, showers, mail and message retrieval, clothing vouchers, pet kennels, storage and locker space. All of these services are designed to support individuals who are actively seeking employment and searching for permanent shelter.
CAP SLO and the City of San Luis Obispo have also been working together on a pilot program where five spots are reserved for overnight parking at the Prado Day Center. The only catch: the occupants of those vehicles must submit to case management. So far, the program, which received an exemption in the overnight parking ordinance, has proven successful.
Despite the effectiveness of CAP SLO’s case management program, many people do not want to sign up for it. The elephant in the room, at least according to mostly anecdotal evidence, is usually drugs and alcohol that often come out ahead of the desire for what amounts to, according to Torres, a 100% shot at self-sufficiency. Therein lies the problem. As hard as it is to understand, there is a sizeable population that willfully remains homeless.
It is not the “have-nots” that are the fast-growing subset of the homeless population, it’s the relocated “will-nots.” Officers on the street claim that there is a “homeless circuit” that exists where a group will migrate from Santa Cruz to San Luis Obispo to San Diego, for example. And it is not just a tour of the California coast that is bringing homeless to our area; a story was recently shared with us of two men that had just arrived from Florida. The police department had made contact with the individuals because they received a call alerting them that someone had built a campfire in the Irish Hills. When asked what they were doing here, they said, “We heard this was a great place to live, so we moved out here.” It turns out that all of the wonderful media our area has been receiving lately—being named the “Happiest City,” for example—may have the side effect of creating some complex challenges, as well.
Right now, “70% of the service calls we have with the transient population are with the newly arrived group, meaning they are coming in from out of town,” explains Steve Gesell, San Luis Obispo Police Chief. “These are not local people that have fallen on hard times and need help, these are people that move here because they’ve heard that this is a nice place to live, and that the police department was ‘soft.’ And they want to impose their lifestyle on law-abiding citizens of our community.” When Gesell was tapped to head the police department earlier this year, it was a homecoming of sorts. He grew up locally and returned to a place that was much the same as he remembered it, except for one thing: there seemed to be a lot more homeless people around.
It did not take Gesell long to confirm his suspicion. In a review of service calls over the last five years, he found that police dealings with the homeless population had doubled. He was further alarmed to find that fully 30% of the calls for service that the department currently receives are for issues related to the homeless population. According to Gesell, this is a percentage that is “significantly larger” than in cities such as Santa Barbara and Ventura. It should be pointed out that homelessness, in itself, is not a crime and the police department does not actively seek contact with the transient population. Department policy states that interaction is to be initiated by citizens who are feeling threatened, or witness or suspect that a crime has occurred. And, misdemeanors, which most petty crimes associated with a transient population are, such as trespassing, littering, public urination, and aggressive panhandling, must be actually observed by a police officer in order to generate a citation. “Frankly,” states Gesell, “citing overnight camping becomes a tool for us because we do not have the resources to place sentries up and down the street to allow us to witness these crimes. It’s the only bit of leverage we have to combat the problem.” Recently, Gesell announced that the department would be dedicating two of its officers full-time to the homeless population (this compares to Santa Barbara, a city twice the size, which has 14 full-time officers focusing on the homeless). And the homeless are not just stretching law enforcement and social service resources, they are also putting additional stress on the environment. Last year alone, the city removed 23 tons of refuse from abandoned homeless encampments in local creeks.
Mayor Jan Marx, who has been on a personal mission to collect donated toiletry items—the little bars of soap and shampoo found in hotel rooms—for the Prado Day Center says, “The thing that really bothers me is the kids, the children in homeless situations because they have no choice. But, what used to be the solution—to give more money, more services isn’t working anymore. And, when they relocate here and are willfully homeless, the question becomes what is our responsibility to those who have chosen to ignore the rules?”
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