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Homelessness a growing problem in North County 

homeless forced to move

A homeless camp in the Salinas Riverbed just before the recent storms. Photo by DuPree Dial.

North County homeless population estimated in the hundreds

–Over the past four years the homeless population for San Luis Obispo County has been estimated between 3,497 in 2013 and 1,515 in 2015. These numbers are derived from a bi-annual Point-in-Time (PIT) census and survey and conducted by the Homeless Services Oversight Council of San Luis Obispo County (HSOC). According to conclusions stated in the HSOC 2015 bi-annual report “Homeless Point in Time Census and Survey Comprehensive Report” the homeless population in “the North region” of the county was 629 individuals in 2015. This number reflects an increase from 466 in 2013.

Once a year, usually towards the end of January, HSOC conducts the PIT census and in the following weeks, a more detailed demographic survey. A PIT census is a snapshot of how many people are counted as homeless in the county on a given day in the year. The demographic survey, including information such as health status and service uses and needs, is conducted after the PIT census is completed. The census and survey is conducted nationwide within the same time frame to provide bi-annual statistics about the national homeless population. Participation on local levels is required by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for counties to receive HUD funds for homeless assistance programs.

The 2017 census and survey has recently been completed and HSOC is currently preparing the 2017 report. Homeless Services Coordinator with HSOC, Laurel Weir, said that the new report is expected to be released sometime in late April.

Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County (CAPSLO) Deputy Director Grace McIntosh said that because the PIT census is conducted only one morning the number of homeless who can be contacted and surveyed is limited by the time frame. McIntosh said she expects the 2017 survey to provide a more accurate picture of county homelessness than past years because of upgrades to the criteria and procedures.

Defining homeless

The guidelines used to define homelessness can cause final population estimates to vary. For example, the PIT census is based on guidelines issued by HUD. The HUD Exchange publishes a number of resources for defining and addressing chronic homelessness. Under the California Department of Education (CDE) guidelines used by school districts, “homeless” includes a family living with relatives, living in trailer parks or motels.

School districts also apply the more stringent federal McKinney Vento guidelines specify “non-permanent nightly resting places” such as shelters or vehicles. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (Title 42 U.S.C. Sections 11431-11435) is federal legislation that ensures the educational rights and protections of children and youths experiencing homelessness.

Paso Robles Unified School District Director of Student Services Bill Press said that currently 535 students in the school district who are qualified as homeless based on the CDE guidelines. There are 29 students meeting the stricter McKinney Vento guidelines. Other North County school districts were not contacted due to time constraints.

Most people living in encampments in the Salinas River corridor would most likely be considered homeless under the HUD guidelines. Paso Robles Police Lieutenant Ty Lewis said that the homeless encampments within city limits don’t yield accurate numbers because the encampments move and are often inhabited by the same people. The police department has been conducting ongoing efforts to eliminate the encampments from the Salinas River corridor since a major evacuation effort in March 2016. Lewis said that since then the number of people camping near the river bed or elsewhere in city limits has reduced from 70 to approximately a dozen. Lewis said the campers are “very creative” and have most likely just moved their camps to other locations outside the city limits.

Sergeant Robert Molle from the Atascadero Police Department said that in the past six months, the department responded to 17 incidents involving violations of the city’s camping ordinance. Some of the incidents involved more than one person. A request for similar North County incident information from the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office has not yet been answered.

Is North County doing enough?

children-60654__340Several organizations based in North County provide assistance for the homeless population, including Paso Cares, ECHO, Loaves and Fishes, Salvation Army and Central Coast LINK. Other organizations, such as the San Luis Obispo County Social Services, Transitions Mental Health Association (TMHA) and the San Luis Obispo County Veterans Center provide county-wide resource that benefit North County homeless populations.

Paso Cares and ECHO provide shelter and daily meals for homeless individuals. Paso Cares President Cherie Michaelson said that Paso Cares feeds approximately 50 individuals every night. ECHO feeds up to 80 per night. Both organizations see some of the same people every day for both food and shelter. The assistance includes food and shelter as well as referrals to needed social services, health services and job assistance.

The Paso Robles school district works with LINK to deliver services for homeless students and their families. Press said other services the school district provides include, “free lunch, free busing, school supplies, clothing certificates, and in emergency situations a motel room for a night or two. Students also can receive after school tutoring, assistance with college visits, school functions like dances, football games, and yearbooks. We try to make their lives as normal as possible given their situation.”

The only year around overnight shelter in North County is provided by 50 beds at ECHO. During cold and wet nights, Paso Cares has access to warming centers at various churches in Templeton, Atascadero and Paso Robles. Saint Williams Parish in Atascadero also opens a warming center in cooperation with ECHO. Paso Cares has an arrangement with Ride On Transportation to pick people up at a location at Riverside Avenue and 24th Street in Paso Robles and take them to the warming centers. The Riverside Ave pick up site is the same location where Paso Cares feeds around 50 homeless people every evening. Ride On returns people from the warming centers to the Riverside Ave location the following morning.

Many organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, North County Connection, California Rural Legal Assistance, and RISE also provide referrals to services when homelessness is a threat or a reality to the populations they support.

In September 2016 former Assembly person Katcho Achadjian announced that Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2254. This bill added the Atascadero Armory to the list of armories that can be used as temporary shelter for the homeless population between October 15 and April 15. The change took effect in January. Information about which agency will manage the shelter services at the Armory from the office of 35th District Assembly person Jordan Cunningham (R) is pending.

Paso Robles Assistant City Manager Meg Williamson said the city coordinated a MASH (Mobile Assistance Serving Homeless) event with county Social Services last October to assist the homeless removed from Salinas River encampments. “And in response to the weather, we have been working collaboratively with service groups since December who are providing a daily feeding program and access to community warming shelters on a coordinated basis when there is inclement weather.”

In April 2016 the Paso Robles City Council voted to establish a North County Homeless Coalition with the aim of working with community representatives to discuss potential long-term solutions for homelessness.

In a recent email, Williamson said, “A formal advisory group has not yet been formed. The coordination of resources and groups has been fairly organic at this point, in response to need. However, we can see a broader more expansive coordination of resources in the future.”

In January the city council received a status report from Mayor Steve Martin about the possible reuses for El Paso de Robles Youth Correction Facility, which includes converting some of the buildings to a homeless shelter and services center. Martin and Councilman Steve Gregory are part of a county-wide interest group for exploring the acquisition and reuse of the facility. The plan has received county-wide interest and support. The City of Paso Robles is taking a leadership role in exploring the acquisition of the property. Williamson said, “That effort will require significant coordination and a more formal strategy.”

Overall, the organizations providing services to the North County population depend heavily on volunteers to support existing services and to be able to reach any unserved populations. Anyone interested in volunteering is encouraged to contact any of the organizations listed here.

Related story:

North County works together to provide services to the homeless population




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About the author: Reporter Jackie Iddings

Jackie Iddings is a contributing reporter and photographer for the Paso Robles Daily News.