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SLO County officials detail homelessness reduction plan 

San Luis Obispo County has a plan to put a "big dent in the problem" of homelessness.

Named the San Luis Obispo Countywide Plan to Address Homelessness, the blueprint aims to shrink homelessness by 50 percent over five years. And on July 11, the county chapter of the League of Women Voters hosted a panel discussion where officials broke down the latest regional effort to reduce homelessness.

"Despite effectively doubling our total capacity to shelter people, we can still only shelter 20 to 30 percent of the number of people who were observed as homeless in 2019," said Susan Funk, the chair of the Homeless Services Oversight Council, at the meeting. "That's the best case scenario with no COVID restrictions, with everything staffed and open. We have a really large gap."

Funk is also the chair of the steering committee that created the draft plan. While she credited individual efforts to alleviate homelessness, Funk added that the scale of effort is not enough to combat SLO County's ballooning rate of unsheltered living.

"We've essentially brought a garden hose to a house fire," Funk said at the meeting.

Previous New Times reporting found that the county ranks third in the United States for people living outdoors in suburban areas. Since 2016, unsheltered homelessness has grown by 22 percent because of scarce housing aggravated by rising rent, limited wages, and COVID-19. The 2019 Point-In-Time (PIT) Count tallied 1,483 homeless people, 79 percent of whom were unsheltered. Collected in February, data for the 2022 count is still in development.

The five-year strategic plan will focus on improving sheltering capacity and homelessness prevention and data collection in its first year. The second and third years will look at expanding service capacity and boosting regional participation with the cities involved. In the final two years, efforts will be directed to refining the data, and increase housing capacity. A homelessness division will also be created within the Department of Social Services to carry out many of the tasks.

But county officials will also have watchdogs monitoring their progress. Former California state Sen. Sam Blakeslee and SLO attorney Greg Gillett plan to launch an independent group called the Citizens Homeless Accountability Commission.

"We are not affiliated with the county. Our goal is to serve as an accountability arm and communicate to the public the gaps and redundancies we find in this plan," Gillett said. "It's still a bureaucracy, it's still a government program. Our role is to put together a group of people who can identify things that aren't going right in as much real-time as possible."

The day before the panel discussion, city of SLO residents identified something they didn't think was quite right. Commuters across the city spotted an abandoned coffin on the side of the road at the Walnut and Santa Rosa streets intersection.

click to enlarge GROWING PROBLEM Commuters and law enforcement officials across the city of SLO spotted a homeless woman pushing an abandoned coffin down the street, with one eyewitness suspecting she sleeps in it. - PHOTO BY S. HARRIS
  • PHOTO BY S. HARRIS
  • GROWING PROBLEM Commuters and law enforcement officials across the city of SLO spotted a homeless woman pushing an abandoned coffin down the street, with one eyewitness suspecting she sleeps in it.

Eyewitness S.Harris, who requested his first name be anonymous, told New Times that he was compelled to stop his car and take a better look. At 9 a.m. on July 10, he saw a woman and two men wheel the coffin onto the sidewalk from under the bridge crossing over Highway 101 on Santa Rosa Street.

"I asked her, 'Do you guys sleep in that?' She said, 'I'll sell it to you for $20.' They were wrestling with it. I'm almost positive they live under the bridge," Harris said. "I think they sleep in it; I don't see any other reason why they'd have a coffin. What's it going to take to provide free public housing en masse?"

Miguel Alvarez, the California Highway Patrol's public information officer, confirmed that officers also spotted the "transient female" pushing the casket down the freeway. She told CHP officers that she found it in a pile of trash outside a building that was being refurbished. When construction workers told her they would dispose the coffin, she asked if she could have it, and they let her.

SLOPD informed New Times that the empty coffin was meant for another destination. The homeless woman wanted to sell it at Sunset Drive-In's swap meet. But she couldn't make it there, and tried to sell it to passersby.

"SLOPD received two calls regarding a coffin on Santa Rosa and patrol did investigate," Neighborhood Outreach Manager Christine Wallace said via email. "The owner told us she originally purchased it from a yard sale; it had been used as a Halloween decoration." Δ

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