HOMELESSNESS: In the “Happiest City in America?”
According to Dan Buettner’s National Geographic book, THRIVE, San Luis Obispo, California is the “Happiest City in America.” This information was even highlighted on an Oprah show:
That being said, they have a housing crisis. This seemed to begin rather insidiously. At first, it could be observed that teachers along with fire fighters, nurses, police officers, and other professionals were no longer able to afford the American Dream of a single family home, having to double up with roommates as though they were still college students or new members of the workforce. The next thing that became obvious was that even for those who could afford homes there were none to be had. It was clear that there was a shortage of housing in general and affordable housing in particular.
Soon to follow was the bottom falling out of the economy. Even highly paid CEOs were losing their jobs and that effect was trickling down. When people could no longer pay their mortgages, homes started going into foreclosure. New houses were not being built, which then forced construction workers out of jobs. Carpenters, roofers, welders, and others in skilled trades were some of the first folks to land on the streets.
What might shock the general public to know is the number of children under the age of 18, who are un-housed (there are hundreds of them in San Luis Obispo public schools); along with the percentage of elderly citizens (including a 90 year old woman - a former teacher - who was homeless in SLO); folks who are disabled, including Veterans; and yes, even highly educated former professionals. These homeless families and individuals are just like you, except they cannot afford housing - “there but for the grace of God…”
It is also important to point out that many of the people who don’t have housing are working or have incomes in the form of Veteran’s benefits, retirement pensions, Social Security disability, General Assistance or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. However, these funds are not enough to pay market value for rent. Many will never be able to move beyond their fixed incomes (retirees or the disabled for example) and will always need subsidized or below market rate housing. More low-income housing needs to be built in order to get these folks out of shelters and off the streets.
Currently, San Luis Obispo is in the midst of parking issues, which impact people who are poor and living in their vehicles (RVs and cars). It looks like the community can either spend funds on solutions to getting folks off the streets or pay for litigation fees (a group of un-housed people have sued the city for human rights violations), which are only going to increase. The City of Sacramento was cited by the United Nations earlier this year for similar violations. In reality, there is not a problem with having an ordinance against people parking on the streets and sleeping in their vehicles. Although, who of us has not pulled over to the side of the road to take a nap if we were too tired to drive? Perhaps we will now get ticketed as well. The issue comes into play when citizens who are living in poverty have nowhere else to go.
As a caring community, San Luis Obispo has an opportunity and the capacity to take the higher/more cost effective road and solve the problem by providing a safe place for people to live. Realistic guidelines will be the key to the success of any program. Currently, the pilot “Safe Parking” program is requiring participants to allow their funds to be managed in an effort to save for future traditional housing (most will never be able to afford market rate housing). However, many of the folks who are un-housed are capable of managing their own finances and do not need this sort of monitoring unlike those who are mandated by the courts to have payees as part of the mental health system.
Due to the sheer numbers of people who are currently experiencing homelessness in San Luis Obispo county (3,774 as of the 2011 Enumeration of the Homeless and it has been said that the actual numbers may be as high as 6,000), creative new solutions need to be supported, especially as there is no “one size fits all” answer. As the “Happiest City in America,” there can be faith that the community is able to solve this crisis by working together collaboratively to create model programs. They have amazing resources at their disposal through the talent of local government, businesses, faith-based community, the Homeless Services Oversight Council, Cal Poly, independent groups of community residents working toward innovative housing models, and thousands of dedicated volunteers who generously donate their time and money.
During a recent City Council meeting, the possibility of implementing a “transitional sliding fee scale campground” was suggested and echoed by several in attendance. There are also a couple of cutting edge projects in the works. For the past seven months, Hope’s Village of SLO’s Board of Directors and committee have been working on a housing project of tiny homes on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo’s city limits. Their village will provide homes for local homeless adults. For more information about their program go to: http://www.hopesvillageofslo.com/
Additionally, San Luis Obispo-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Common Ground Worldwide, is in the process of forming a local chapter of “Teen Build” for teenagers who would like to help build small homes for a self-sustaining Eco-Cottage Community Co-op for families with children who are un-housed. Their website is http://www.commongroundworldwide.org/
It has long been known that housing people is less expensive than sheltering, incarcerating, or hospitalizing them. Getting folks off the streets will free up funds for other local services.
Moving forward, here’s hoping that the housed members of the community will all work together to create an area that is indeed the “Happiest City in America” for all of its neighbors regardless of socio-economic status.
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Reverend Cynthia Rae Eastman is an ordained interfaith minister, who is the Founder/Volunteer Executive Director of Common Ground Worldwide, a San Luis Obispo-based 501(c)(3) grassroots nonprofit organization with projects relating to homelessness. Having been un-housed herself several times over the course of her life (beginning as a runaway teenager, due to domestic violence), Rev. Eastman was interviewed for the award winning documentary, Homeless Not Hopeless: In the Happiest Place in America: