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The Tribune: Homelessness is at a tipping point in SLO County. Big ideas deserve public discussion

It’s a situation happening far too often in San Luis Obispo County: Homeless people set up camp — usually at some off-the-beaten-path location — only to be evicted by authorities.

So, they move somewhere else, and the process repeats — again and again and again.

Enough. It’s time to end what truly is a vicious cycle for everyone involved.

To that end, two community leaders are proposing some major changes in the way local agencies deal with the issue. Their goal is to reduce homelessness by 50% within four years.

Sam Blakeslee, a former state senator and assemblyman, teamed up with local attorney Gregory Gillett on an analysis of the current state of homeless services in San Luis Obispo County, followed by the release of some ambitious preliminary recommendations.

They’re calling for a collaborative, countywide approach to helping unhoused people through the formation of a new agency; better tracking of services provided to individuals; and removal of obstacles standing in the way of adding shelters and permanent, low-cost housing.

These are big ideas that are at least deserving of public discussion, but so far the response has been underwhelming.

Gillett sent letters to all seven city councils, asking that the report be placed on the agenda for discussion.

That hasn’t happened.

Blakeslee said a couple of county supervisors — John Peshong and Dawn Ortiz-Legg — expressed interest, and he’s grateful for that. But he and Gillett fear the overall lack of interest indicates that local officials don’t see this as a true emergency.

We hope that’s not the case.

Clearly, we’re at a tipping point in San Luis Obispo County.

People are sleeping in doorways in downtown SLO.

Families living in their cars have been booted out of neighborhoods.

A lawsuit has been filed that accuses the city of San Luis Obispo of “criminalizing the homeless.” The city strongly denies that and has asked a judge to dismiss the case.

It’s true that there has been some progress; for example, the county opened a safe parking facility near the Sheriff’s Office.

But it’s hard to keep up with a growing demand, especially while a worldwide pandemic is raging. Temporary and permanent housing projects aren’t coming close to meeting the needs of San Luis Obispo County, despite the dedication and best efforts of nonprofit agencies and homeless advocates.

Emergency shelter beds are lacking — the South County, for instance, only has a warming center that’s open during periods of cold and wet weather.

There are no “safe grounds” facilities where people can camp legally, without fear of being displaced.

And there’s a glaring lack of affordable units for people seeking permanent housing.

Blakeslee and Gillett are calling for a more comprehensive, regional approach — one that would bring all programs and services under a single umbrella to increase efficiency and accountability.

They recommend forming a Joint Powers Authority — or JPA — that would serve as a governing body for the entire county, overseen by a board of directors made up of elected officials.

They also recommend drafting a model ordinance that would allow affordable units, such as as emergency shelters, group homes, tiny home villages and permanent supportive housing to be built “by right” — meaning they would be exempted from the various hoops that other projects face. Under their plan, each member agency of the JPA would adopt the ordinance.

These aren’t simple fixes, to be sure.

The mere idea of forming another government agency would no doubt be a non-starter for some, and loosening land-use regulations would get push-back as well.

But Blakeslee and Gillett aren’t asking for a commitment; at this point they’re suggesting that local agencies form a task force to take a closer look.

“The task force would … review the proposal, determine its viability, recommend changes/additions and/or propose something better,” Gillett wrote in an email.

The proposal is at least worth putting on an agenda, if for no other reasons than to shine a light on the enormity of the problem and point out that there are other management models out there. Even if there’s no buy-in for the entire plan, perhaps some pieces might work.

The Board of Supervisors is a good place to start the discussion, especially since Ortiz-Legg and Peschong have indicated they’re open to that.

So is Board Chairman Bruce Gibson.

“I’m happy to talk about it,” he said. “Homelessness is a board priority. It is a social priority. It is a moral priority, and we need to do better.”

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