San Luis Obispo’s homelessness response changes lives for the better
This time last year Marvin Oppie was sleeping on a sidewalk in San Luis Obispo, showering at Hope’s Village, and getting his meals from the Salvation Army. He became unsheltered after complications from a hip replacement forced him out of work. He wanted housing but wasn’t sure where to start.
One day, an outreach worker asked Oppie if he wanted to be placed in permanent housing. He jumped at the chance and Oppie filled out the application forms.
Today, Oppie lives in a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate. The refurbished complex includes a swimming pool and weight room.
“This is a beautiful place,” Oppie said. “I am so grateful that San Luis Obispo provides the services so some of us can get off the streets and live somewhere safe and clean.”
Investing in change
Oppie’s story is one of many. San Luis Obispo County has the third largest percentage of unsheltered homeless individuals nationwide compared to similar-sized communities. Nearly 400 city residents are experiencing homelessness — 248 unsheltered and 137 sheltered.
It’s a significant challenge. It’s also one that the city of San Luis Obispo and its regional partners are taking seriously.
Given the lengthy timeframe for building new shelters and permanent supportive housing, the city chose to focus first on bolstering support services for unsheltered residents. It beefed up city services and formed new partnerships with other stakeholders.
This year, the city adopted its first homelessness response strategic plan. It hired its first homelessness response manager in 2021, directed new resources to the Police Department’s outreach and enforcement team, and launched a Mobile Crisis Unit through the Fire Department.
In all, the city dedicated approximately $1.6 million in general fund dollars, American Rescue Plan Act funds, and other sources to homelessness response in its 2022-23 budget.
San Luis Obispo has increasingly prioritized providing services to individuals living in encampments along the creeks that crisscross the city. Many of these encampments sit in flood and fire zones.
In July, the county received a $13.4 million grant from the state to reduce encampments in flood and fire zone areas along the Bob Jones Bike Trail. The city earmarked its portion of that funding for outreach and services coordination, temporary restrooms, storage, and trash services. City officials expect to begin outreach this fall.
Many of those unsheltered residents living along the Bob Jones Bike Trail will go to Welcome Home Village. Located in the heart of the city and managed by the county, the village will offer 80 beds — including 34 interim and 46 permanent supportive housing units — and case management. The village is projected to open in 2024.
San Luis Obispo Mayor Erica A. Stewart emphasized that projects like Welcome Home Village would not be possible without collaboration.
“It is vital for us to work regionally and in partnerships,” said Stewart. “No city is an island.”
Much of the city’s success depends on its partnerships with nonprofits, particularly the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO). It manages the 40 Prado Homeless Services Center, a year-round shelter that offers meals, showers, laundry, case management, medical care, and other supportive services.
Since 2021, the city has directed extra funding to the center. The center now has a bed capacity of 129 — including space for families and recuperative care. CAPSLO also runs a safe parking program that allows residents to park overnight, with access to all the center's resources.
Dameon Brown once lived at the safe parking site. He was caring for his mother while living in his RV parked at his cousin’s house. After his mother passed, he moved to the safe parking site. There, he organized the parking so that elderly residents were in the quietest spots and those going to work every day had their own designated spot, creating a safer and more supportive community.
“I am so grateful for the opportunity to do service and help,” Brown said. “Before we did not have a site captain and there was no one to watch our backs.”
Today, Brown is living in shared housing while waiting for permanent supportive housing at Pismo Village.
Programs and partnerships like these have garnered regional and national attention. Other cities have sent delegations to San Luis Obispo and outreach coordinators across the country regularly call with questions.
The city has also incorporated successful practices from other cities.
Stewart cites mobile crisis units in Denver and Eugene as successful practices the city has adopted. San Luis Obispo also replicated other cities’ family reunification programs. Over the last 13 months, its mobile crisis unit has reconnected 68 people with their families, responded to 486 dispatched calls, and made over 4,000 outreach contacts.
“We are very open to learning from what others are doing throughout the nation and across the globe,” Stewart said. “There are visionary cities that have applied innovative techniques to support their population of people experiencing homelessness and we have incorporated some of their ideas here.”
The next “pro-housing” city?
San Luis Obispo is also making it easier to build affordable housing. In recent years, the city reduced zoning restrictions so developers could build more affordable and market-rate housing. The city has nearly 600 affordable housing units in the pipeline, with roughly 100 set aside for people experiencing homelessness.
In 2020, the state certified the city’s newest housing element. According to San Luis Obispo’s city manager, Derek Johnson, the city’s housing successes have positioned it well for the state’s pro-housing designation. The city met over half of its last Regional Housing Needs Allocation, well above the regional average.
The city knows this is just a start. Stewart and Johnson are hopeful that the state will see the progress the city has made and increase funding for both housing construction and on-the-ground services.
“We have no shortage of policies," says Johnson. “We have a pipeline of housing and a framework in place to get people into shelters, then into a continuum of housing where they can land in permanent supportive housing. But we don’t have the resources or the financing to make it happen.”
Ultimately, San Luis Obispo’s success is not just measured by the data. Its multipronged and collaborative approach has created dozens of stories like Oppie’s.
“I take the most pride when I hear the personal stories about someone who was chronically homeless and the system works,” Johnson said. “It’s the stories of individuals we can pull off the street, help get them sober and into a shelter then into permanent housing, and into job training. When we collaborate and work together, we can accomplish a lot and change people’s lives for the better.”