Trish Henderson and her family arrived at the Kansas Ave. Safe Parking Site in San Luis Obispo four months ago.
“My family and I, we struggled with homelessness off and on for quite a while. We were starting to get on our feet again, and then I got diagnosed with cancer,” Henderson said. “We got lucky enough to get a trailer, and we were living in it next to a friend's house for a while, and of course, code enforcement in Atascadero [said], ‘you can’t do that.’”
Although her cancer is back, Henderson is ready to fight it. This time, in Texas.
“My mom lives there, cost of living, and there's two really good cancer-specific hospitals in Dallas and Houston,” Henderson said.
The Kansas Ave. Safe Parking Site off of Highway 1 in San Luis Obispo was a pilot program established in 2021. It was intended to temporarily house homeless families living in their vehicles. At any given time, it houses around 65 to 75 residents.
Now, the county says it is time to phase out this program.
“There is no associated timeline with the closure itself or simply preventing new or not allowing new participants to enter the site,” explained Joe Dzvonik, San Luis Obispo County Homeless Services Division Manager.
While well-intended, the pilot program proved to be unsuccessful.
“The problem was, you know, we did not consult with service providers on maybe the best way to do that, maybe the signs of the entry requirements, how we track people — a lot of those things weren't thought through,” Dzvonik said.
Jack Lahey, Director of Homeless Services for Community Action Partnership in San Luis Obispo County (CAPSLO), said there are some success stories.
“[Since Feb. 2023], we have been able to work with 16 households to help them obtain permanent housing and some of those are families, some of those are individuals,” Lahey said. “There are some individuals who have exited the site and moved back to families, some who moved into voucher units.”
CAPSLO does not run the site, but they make recommendations and support with case management.
“It does help because it gives a finite end to the program, and it helps us really deepen our engagement with people here and work on the barriers that they have to get into housing,” Lahey added.
The 5Cities Homeless Coalition and El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO) will also support the county with resources.
“We have a program that is really, really showing a lot of success with our 110 beds,” said Austin Solheim, ECHO’s Community Engagement Manager. “We do a 90-day program between our two campuses that really shows that about 50 to 60% of the individuals we serve get back into housing.”
County officials say any future deadline for the closure of the Kansas Ave. site could be extended because they say they want residents to succeed. Dzvonik said they are also going to take into account affordable housing availability.
“The county has developed its own five-year plan to address homelessness and included this larger strategy used to construct modular homes or homeless operations over time. Tiny little villages, as they're called,” Dzvonik said.
As Henderson prepares for this next chapter, she hopes her neighbors also get another chance.
“I just want the county to remember that these people out here are human, and they deserve basic human necessities,” Henderson said.