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Los Osos debates options for unhoused residents living by library, including a move to El Chorro campground 

Palisades Avenue in Los Osos runs north from Los Osos Valley Road and past a community park, community center, and library, before it dead-ends at a Catholic church.

For the better part of the past 18 months, this quarter-mile stretch of road has served less as a community hub than as a living space for unhoused residents, who line its curbs with cars, RVs, and trailers.

"We don't enjoy this. It's not like we want this," said one lifelong Los Osos resident living in her car, who asked New Times not to publish her name. "It can happen to anybody."

click to enlarge CAR LIVING The Los Osos community is looking for solutions to the growing number of unhoused residents living in vehicles on Palisades Avenue, near the park, community center, and library. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • CAR LIVING The Los Osos community is looking for solutions to the growing number of unhoused residents living in vehicles on Palisades Avenue, near the park, community center, and library.

In March 2020, when COVID-19 first hit, San Luis Obispo County established three safe parking areas where unhoused people could park, sleep, shower, and use a bathroom—including one in the Los Osos library parking lot.

But after just three months, the county abruptly closed the sites, citing a lack of funding. While the sanctioned program ended, many residents on Palisades never left and more arrived.

Now, Palisades is home to between 20 and 35 vehicles, depending on the night (or who you ask), while others camp in the nearby vegetation. Local advocates do their best to provide food, outreach, and support. Some citizens, both housed and unhoused, said they've witnessed fights, fires, drug deals, and discarded syringes.

The situation has pushed many in Los Osos to a breaking point. As pandemic restrictions lift, community members are desperate to return to the community spaces centered on Palisades. But many don't feel safe doing so.

"That's the heart of our town," said Becky McFarland, a 36-year resident of Los Osos. "This is a crisis, and it's made it so that so many people don't want to go to the park with their kids or grandkids, or to the library. Nothing has been done. People need help."

Over the past few months, McFarland and fellow local Pat West have collaborated to develop a specific solution to the crisis they are now pleading with the county to embrace. Their proposal is to repurpose the El Chorro Regional Park campground off Highway 1 into a sanctioned encampment for the unhoused, starting with the residents of Palisades.

"We're trying to find something better than this street," McFarland said. "We want services out there. We want what they can get at [40] Prado [shelter in SLO]. That's not happening on Palisades."

Their proposal outlines a six-week transition to turn the 61-site campground into a 24/7 staffed, sanctioned encampment. The campsites could provide water, electricity, restrooms, and showers to residents, and be a hub for services, they argue. It could launch as a two-year pilot program and buy the county time to develop more permanent solutions.

An online petition in support had more than 1,200 signatures at press time.

Second District Supervisor Bruce Gibson told New Times it was "a really constructive proposal." Gibson said it addresses the main challenge at Palisades, which is that the county cannot enforce overnight parking or camping ordinances without first providing adequate shelter alternatives, due to the federal court ruling, Martin v. Boise.

"My feeling on it is it's a good idea," Gibson said. "What I like about it is they've identified a county asset and suggested that we devote that county asset to this mission. We are in the process right now of seeing whether it's feasible."

There are several logistical challenges that the proposal raises, Parks and Recreation Director Nick Franco said. One is that El Chorro has a federal deed restriction that designates the property for recreational use. Another is that "a few thousand" camping reservations are booked through next July, as well as large events, like Live Oak Music Festival. Officials also have to consider park partners, like the SLO Botanical Garden and the Dairy Creek Golf Course, and water and wastewater capacity.

"Once we've had an opportunity to look at these issues, ... I will be able to comment more substantively. I expect that will take a few weeks to look into, however," Franco said in a July 22 email.

Yael Korin, who chairs an Unhoused Residents Committee at the Los Osos Community Advisory Council, feels that the park is too far away from Los Osos, isolated from city centers and services. While McFarland and West want to address that by adding a bus stop on the park side of Highway 1, Korin is skeptical.

"Some people don't have cars. Some people have a hard time walking. They'll be further isolated from the community," Korin said. "You want people to be integrated into the community, not isolated from the community."

Korin and her husband have supported residents on Palisades over the past several months by providing food, trash bags, and outreach, describing the street community as supportive and tight-knit. She said she doesn't see how the county could successfully run a sanctioned encampment at El Chorro if it can't provide basic services at Palisades.

"They think there are going to be services there. How are they going to materialize there if they don't materialize here?" she asked.

Reactions to the proposal from four unhoused residents varied. Two residents with cars or RVs said they'd likely utilize it. All agreed that the project would not suit everyone. One resident was outright opposed.

"All it is is a petition to try to get us out of here," she said. "I've lived in this town for 56 years. I don't want to leave my town I grew up in."

Korin said her committee prefers establishing sanctioned encampments closer to town and pursuing permanent solutions, like a tiny home village. McFarland, West, and Korin all agree on one thing: The situation on Palisades is untenable.

Supervisor Gibson said he hears this message loud and clear.

"We need to act on this," he said. "If for some reason Chorro is not feasible to do, I want us to be ready with a functionally equivalent alternative." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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