$2.6 million divides south SLO County in homeless housing feud

Apr 24, 2019

$5.5 million dollars was awarded to San Luis Obispo County homeless agencies and organizations this week. It came from a pool of hundreds of millions in state grants offered to help house the homeless and create services for homeless youth in counties across California. At Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting, many in attendance were excited about the generous new funding opportunities, but many others weren’t happy with where the money may be spent in south San Luis Obispo County.

Entities across the county, many of whom partnered up, submitted detailed applications for how they planned to use the money to help the homeless. Highly sought after was $500 million in a one-time Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP) grant being divided up across the state. Mandates of the grant including expanding and creating new homeless housing options, as well as using five percent of each applicant’s allocation to “establish or expand services meeting the needs of homeless youth or youth at risk of homelessness.”

Two committees—including the county’s Homeless Services Oversight Council (HSOC), which makes recommendations to the board of supervisors regarding federal and state grant funding—reviewed them. The San Luis Obispo County board of supervisors is charged with doling out the funds.

A portion of the money, $400,000, will go to the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County (CAPLSO) for a new detox center, also called a withdrawal management unit, at 40 Prado Homeless Services Center, which many say the county desperately needs. And the city of Paso Robles received $1.5 million for North County Coordinated Homeless Services, which includes a partnership with Paso Cares and the El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO) .

“There will be dozens of new shelter beds in Paso Robles that do not exist today,” Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin said at Tuesday’s meeting. “There will be new feeding, warming and cooling areas in Paso Robles. ”

Many people spoke in support of both the detox center and the north county funding at Tuesday’s meeting. But that is where much of the agreement ended.

“The thing that strikes me is the stark contrast between how the project in north county is being received and the way the project is south sounty is being received,” local business owner Beatrice Spencer said.

The south county project is called the Five Cities Housing Partnership. It’s a collaboration between the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition and Peoples' Self-Help Housing. The project received the biggest allotment of cash, $2.6 million dollars, in hopes of purchasing the Hillside Church in Grover Beach and turning it into housing for the homeless.

After hearing about the plan for Hillside Church, a grassroots neighborhood effort rose up to battle the proposed location. Red and white signs began showing up in surrounding area, saying, “Right Idea, Wrong Location," and hundreds signed a petition saying they opposed the project. Others said they weren’t properly informed about it, and residents have raised concerns about how the project is being handled.

“The largest amount of this share of the money is going to go to a project [that] isn’t even paying for the dirt, let alone the building that needs to be renovated,” Spencer said.

The Five Cities Housing Partnership originally asked for upwards of $3.4 million dollars. But after a passionate meeting of the HSOC at the beginning of April, that amount was knocked down to $2.6 million, which led several residents to ask the board if it was even enough to purchase the property.

John Fowler, president and CEO of People’s Self-Help Housing, disputed that claim.

“You know us,” Fowler said. "And you know 5 Cities [Housing] Coalition. You know what we do, you know we are successful with that, you know that we can take these funds and not match them but leverage them and do a really well [sic] job.”

Patricia Gomez said she was one of the first staffers for HSOC and has seen 5 Cities Housing Coalition grow over the past decade.

“For ten years, the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition has been looking for a location,” Gomez said. “You have a location for a navigation center and low-income housing, which is sorely needed throughout the county, and you have two organizations that have proven capacity to really pull this off. Sure there is [sic] a lot of things that need to happen. But those two organizations know how to make things happen.”

But John Fleming, who said he sits on the board of Hillside Church, said he and other members of the congregation have no intention of selling the property, although he said the congregation has dwindled after the church's decision to let anyone—including the homeless—inside for services.

“We’re not dead yet,” Fleming said. “This is our calf we’re talking about, and before it gets carved up, I want everyone here to be aware of the fact we’re not going to sit and take this. We are going to seek remedy.”

Fleming said the church's offerings to the homeless population have affected the surrounding neighborhoods as well.

“I have talked to neighbors that have had individuals peering into their daughters bedroom.” Fleming said after the meeting. “They find people peeing in their rose bushes.”

While dozens of south county residents who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting agreed on the need for homeless services in south San Luis Obispo County, many said they worried about the effect homeless housing will have on the neighborhood, and several speakers asked if their children would continue to be able to walk to school.

“The project is inaccessible without passing within 1000 feet of eight schools or daycare facilities," Grover Beach resident Julie Cohen said. “It’s also located as far as possible from primary areas of homeless congregation. Public health providers are keenly aware that the best way to provide services is to take them to those in need. Placing the needed services as far as you can from those in need feels like a bad idea.”

Supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton shared several concerns about giving money to the Five Cities Housing Partnership while there still appeared to be loose ends, upset neighbors and no secured site.

“I can’t get behind a project with this much opposition,” Arnold said. “I want to give the money to Five Cities [with it] not be tied to [the Hillside Church] project and have some more options”

“There is substantial opposition to this project,” Compton said. “Is all of it real? Is some of it fear? Yeah, I think some of it is. I think people were alerted of this project well after it was beginning, and it caught wind,  and not everybody knows the true story."

Compton proposed bringing in a mediator and holding the funds for the Five Cities Housing Partnership in a special account until all the groups involved could come to an agreement.

Supervisor Adam Hill said to KCBX News by phone after the meeting why he and other supervisors didn’t go for Compton’s proposal.

“Our job is not to condition this,” Hill said. “That’s to be worked out by the Five Cities Homeless Coalition, People’s Self Help [Housing] and the south county cities. Our job was to take the advice of the council that was set up to give us this advice and move it forward."

That council Hill referred to is the HSOC, which he sits on.

Arnold and Compton vetoed the funding allocation, but they were in the minority to Supervisors Peschong, Gibson and Hill, who voted for it. Hill said at the meeting that despite the opposition, the homeless services are desperately needed in his district.

“When you deal with these issues, nobody’s won a popularity contest from helping the people who need it the most,” Hill said at the meeting. “Nobody. Not even Jesus.”

The next step for the Hillside Church project is to go before the Grover Beach city council.

“This is an opportunity to bring everyone together and have a conversation,” Grover Beach Mayor Jeff Lee  said after the meeting. "It’s going to need a lot of dialogue, a lot of communication between the sides, and an ability on some level to compromise in order to accomplish what needs to be done, with safety of the communities being paramount.”

The Grover Beach city council will take up land use questions for the project at a future date, and decide if the proposed location is the right one to bring homeless housing to south county.