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It could happen here 

SLO could face major homelessness

I was looking forward to traveling this summer, and travel did prove to be invigorating after the many months of COVID-19 restrictions. However, my visits to Portland and the San Francisco Bay Area provided a shock I wasn't prepared for. Homelessness there has reached crisis proportions, and cities are in a quandary as to how to deal with it.

When I lived in Portland, its downtown area was a commercial and cultural magnet. The "Park Blocks," a long strip of trees and flowers, were the center of the visual and performing arts area. This strip is now lined with tents, tarps, shopping carts, and debris of all kinds. Two blocks away near Pioneer Square, there are several pricey hotels and some upscale stores, but this area, too, is clogged with homeless encampments. Portland, like many large cities, has had a homeless issue for some years, but in the past year it has gotten far worse due to COVID-19-related loss of jobs and rental evictions. The store closures and increased numbers of homeless residents have undoubtedly had a negative effect on the city's financial health. Let's not let this happen here.

I often travel to the San Francisco Bay Area by Amtrak bus and train and have noted homeless encampments and unofficial garbage dumps lining the train tracks. These are still there. But the downtown street scene in Berkeley was more shocking than I could have imagined. Camps of four to six tents and blue tarps thrown over sleeping bags and possessions were everywhere in the city center. Berkeley's government has thoughtfully provided Port-a-Potties for the camp residents' use, otherwise there would have been a sanitary disaster. But this permissiveness is no solution to the problem.

Fortunately, a group of progressive organizations, one partner being Rebuilding Together/East Bay North, are creating a living space in an empty warehouse (Horizon Village Transitional Housing). With volunteer help and donated materials, they are currently building partitions and creating community spaces. Residents will be provided with tents, bathrooms, meals, and social services. Although not a long-term solution, this kind of creative thinking will be an important first step.

So that's life in two large cities but let's not fool ourselves into thinking it can't happen here ... it can. Recently, The Tribune featured an article on the growth of SLO's homeless population. Until now, the growth of camps has been in parks and near stream beds rather than on downtown streets, but that may not remain the case. Our local city councils and the county's Board of Supervisors have already put some thought into how to alleviate the problem, but we are still far short of what is needed. We would do well to think ahead and look to other cities for possible ways to move forward. If we don't, what is happening in other cities could happen here! Δ

Judith Bernstein has a degree in urban planning and social policy from UCLA. Send comments through the editor at [email protected].

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