A city such as San Luis Obispo seems to have everything: a small-town feel with an influx of tourism, but it is a different story for those facing homelessness.
According to a survey by San Luis Obispo County, 66% of people without a home say they cannot afford rent.
Among those individuals is Crystal Davis who works full time but said it is not enough to afford a place to live.
“How are we supposed to live in paradise when it is so hard to get there,” Davis said. “I didn’t want to be broke again like I am now in a car and tomorrow is pay day, so I live paycheck to paycheck.”
In 2019, San Luis Obispo County counted nearly 1,500 homeless individuals with 79% identified as unsheltered and 26% saying they lived in their vehicle.
“I sleep about four hours maybe, you know, constant and then I wake up and there’s either somebody siphoning my gas or trying to change my tires out or something weird or peeing on my car,” Davis added.
Davis said she's turned her life around from a past of toxic relationships and drug abuse, but she’s still missing her teenage son.
“He hasn’t talked to me in three months because I’m homeless, because I don’t have anywhere for us to go and when I did, it was a hotel,” Davis explained.
In the summer of 2021, Davis learned about a federal COVID-19 Emergency Housing Voucher Program run by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Housing Authority of the City of San Luis Obispo (HASLO) got a portion of those funds and launched the Welcome Home Program.
“We got the award, and the program started late July. They said you need to lease, not just process for eligibility of clients, but they need to lease apartments, half of those at least by November, and the rest sometime in December or you may lose this assistance,” recalled Scott Smith, HASLO Executive Director.
A huge help for those seeking a place to live off of the streets.
“[It covered] the portion of rent you cannot afford,” Smith added.
Each applicant had to be referred by a community partner, such as the 5Cities Homeless Coalition, and had to find a landlord willing to lease to them.
“It included landlord incentives, what we call a signing bonus. New landlords who had never worked with us received a one-time $4,000 signing bonus if they entered a lease with that homeless client,” Smith said.
A program great on paper but hard to execute when housing is scarce.
“[A] limited number of vouchers and high cost of rent make stretching those dollars very difficult,” said Janna Nichols, 5Cities Homeless Coalition Executive Director.
Davis did not think twice about applying.
“I have been denied six times for a voucher before and when I was approved, my social worker called and told me that I had this emergency housing voucher,” she explained. “I immediately started looking for a place, and it was nine weeks and 54 places that I had either called, looked at, had a walk-through for, or applied to and I had 28 callbacks and all of them were a no.”
According to HASLO, only 156 tenants got the help.
“Many more people qualified for the voucher than were able to take advantage of it,” Nichols added. “Twice the number of people that got the vouchers qualified for them but were not able to find housing in time to lease upon the limited number that they had.”
Sending homeless people like Davis back to square one.
“[I] didn't know it was a race,” Davis said, adding that she got a letter from HASLO with the following explanation: “You will be placed on the waiting list with the date that you were issued a voucher.”
“We wanted to have a good supply of applicants because we anticipated that maybe only one in three applicants might be successful,” Smith explained. “Even if they are eligible, they might not be able to locate an apartment and a landlord that was willing to rent to them, so we needed a bigger pool.”
HASLO is working on building more affordable housing units. About 100 new apartments should be finished in 2022.
“Forty of those are in South County, and they are going to be finished in March,” Smith said. “There are another 60 or so that are located in San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay that have just started construction.”
According to HASLO, 40 apartments for seniors located at 147 Mary Avenue in Nipomo are almost done. Thirty-eight apartments, which include one, two and three bedroom units at 3065 Lucca Lane in San Luis Obispo, just started construction. Lastly, construction on 35 apartments at 405 Atascadero Road in Morro Bay is set to begin this week.
HASLO said there is word of another voucher program opening up possibly this summer.
“The challenge is that if we don’t know that more vouchers are coming, it is really difficult for me to move someone into a place, provide rental assistance on the assumption that eventually they may have a voucher to help them maintain,” Nichols said. “If they don’t get that voucher and my assistance has to terminate by virtue of time and funding, then where is that family? We have housed them but then they are at risk again of losing housing.”
Davis said she lives in a never-ending cycle.
“I don’t want the county’s hand out, I want the county’s help up,” Davis added.
5Cities Homeless Coalition is always looking for property owners willing to support housing programs.
“If you’re a landlord, that’s where we really need your assistance. We have about a 90% rate in terms of keeping people housed once we help them move into housing. We do a lot in our case management teaching them budgeting,” Nichols explained.
To help individuals like Davis who yearn for a place they can call home.
“I've been a leader my whole life. I've always stood on my own and taken care of things, but I can’t do that anymore by myself,” Davis said. “I can’t, and it really sucks that right now that I need help because I'm so used to doing it by myself.”
HASLO reported that around 90 landlords signed up for this emergency housing voucher program and about 58 of them were new program applicants.
For more information on how to support housing programs as a landlord or receive help as a homeless individual, those interested can reach out to the 5Cities Homeless Coalition at (805) 574-1638.