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Lawsuit filed against City of SLO alleges criminalization of homelessness

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Rachel Showalter
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A group of non-profit legal firms are filing a lawsuit against the City of San Luis Obispo seeking to end alleged criminalization of homelessness by the city.

The lawsuit claims the city is violating the constitutional rights of the unhoused population by breaking up encampments during the pandemic and illegally seizing and destroying individuals’ property.

Frank Kopcinski is the directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance in San Luis Obispo, which is one of the non-profits bringing the lawsuit.

Kopcinski said the basis for this lawsuit comes from a 2019 case known as Martin v. Boise.

“That case said that it is a violation of the 8th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, it’s cruel and unusual punishment, to criminally prosecute people for living, sleeping, resting outside when they don’t have adequate shelter within a jurisdiction,” Kopcinski said.

According to the 2019 San Luis Obispo County Homeless Census and Survey, there were 326 unhoused individuals living unsheltered in the city of San Luis Obispo.

Jack Lahey, director of homeless services at the city’s only homeless shelter, 40 Prado, told KCBX News their maximum capacity is 124 — but it can be increased on nights that they open their warming shelter.

Kopcinski said they aren’t seeking any compensation for unhoused people who have been allegedly affected. He said the main goal of the lawsuit is to end alleged criminalization but they also hope it proves that extra resources, like housing, can improve the lives of the unhoused population.

Becky Jorgeson from Hopes Village, an organization working to build sustainable homes for unhoused veterans and their families in SLO County, spoke at a press conference addressing the lawsuit.

She said the city isn’t doing enough and the answer to reducing homelessness is simple.

“It’s not rocket science. People need housing,” Jorgeson said. “They don’t just need services. And the city says, ‘Well we’re providing lots of services.’ They don’t need just services. They need housing. They need a roof over their head. They need a bathroom. They need a sink. They need a coffee maker and somewhere to put their documents. It’s not happening.”

In a statement to KCBX News, the city said:

"This lawsuit is especially discouraging because the City is doing more now than ever before to increase housing here and provide public services to unhoused and unsheltered community members. We are confident in and will continue our years of hard work to proactively address homelessness in San Luis Obispo. We remain committed to balancing compassion for our most vulnerable community members with accountability to ensure that individuals and groups are obeying the law. It’s important for people to remember that there are many sides to every story. This is an extremely complex set of issues, and our staff are making extraordinary efforts to help vulnerable people and protect our community every day. We will defend our community in court, and we ask the community to refrain from passing judgment until all facts are fully vetted through the legal process."

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