County-City to Work on Homeless Housing Project

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

June 29, 2023

Photo is of one of the little cabins [tiny homes] in the ‘Cabins for Change’ facility in Grover Beach and being proposed for Morro Bay. The 100-square foot tiny homes would have heating and air, and electricity, and residents would be able to stay in them day and night. Photo courtesy5 Cities Homeless Coalition

San Luis Obispo County is hoping to land a huge State grant and build a homeless housing project on Morro Bay’s Quintana Road, albeit a temporary one.

The City Council recently gave a nod of support to a County-led effort to finally bring some kind of homeless sheltering to Morro Bay, and in the process tidy up Willow Camp Creek that’s become one of the main areas for homeless encampments in town and has a lot of trash strewn about.

The other main area where folks pitch tents and beat out a hard-scrabble existence, is the forested land along Morro Creek as it runs past Lila Keiser Park and empties onto the beach.

$5 Million Grant Sought

SLO County’s Homeless Services Division is applying for a $5 million grant from the State’s “Encampment Resolution Funding Program,” in the second round of funding for the program originating from the California Interagency Council on Homelessness, according to a City staff report prepared by Community Development Director Scot Graham.

According to website, the program is a $350 million competitive, grant program, made available “to assist local jurisdictions in ensuring the wellness and safety of people experiencing homelessness in encampments by providing services and supports that address their immediate physical and mental wellness and result in meaningful paths to safe and stable housing.”

Of the total, some $237 million is up for grabs in the second round of funding, Graham said. June 30 is the stated deadline for applications but the program is slated to continue until the money runs out.

“The purpose of the grant,” Graham said, “is to resolve critical encampment concerns and funding can only be used for programs that connect people experiencing homelessness in encampments to interim shelter with clear pathways to permanent housing.”

Vacant Lot Eyed

Photo of the vacant lot on Quintana Road where the County and City hope o put a temporary homeless person housing facility. Photo by Neil Farrell

What the County has in mind is leasing a vacant lot on Quintana Road just south of the Couch Potato Furniture Store’s property. 

That patch of dirt runs along Willow Camp Creek for about 50 yards or so, and has a visible pathway leading through vegetation that lines the creek channel. 

It should be noted that Willow Camp Creek is not a riparian, natural habitat, as the creek running between Hwy 1 and Quintana Road is really mostly a cement-lined drainage ditch. 

The creek starts in the hills on ranchlands on the east side of Hwy 1 above the end of Morro Bay Boulevard. Rain runoff collects in a drainage swale that ducks underneath the highway and daylights behind what used to be the U-Haul Store (which moved to Atascadero Road and Main Street during the sewer project construction). 

It runs behind auto shops, a tow service yard, Burger King and other Quintana businesses to Main Street where it then ducks under the pavement, coming back up on the Power Plant Bike Path. 

The creek channel flows through the plant property and empties into Morro Creek west of Hwy 1. 

It’s pretty much a seasonal creek that is dry most of the year. The creek carries runoff from the highway’s storm drains, too.

Modeled After Grover Beach

The “temporary” sheltering would consist of 100-square foot wooden structures, sheds really or perhaps “tiny homes,” copying a model being used in Grover Beach that the County also set up last December.

Called “Cabins for Change,” that 20-unit “emergency housing” facility was built on County-owned property at 16th and Long Branch Avenue adjacent to the Superior Court building, and “is the first of its kind in South County,” the 5CHC website explained, “and will provide shelter space and other important services for individuals experiencing homelessness. The City of Grover Beach, County of San Luis Obispo and 5Cities Homeless Coalition partnered on this innovative facility, which will be operated by 5CHC.”

The facility uses what’s called a “non-congregate housing model,” which means each person would have his or her own little cabin to stay in.

The Coalition provides round-the-clock support and case management, the website said, with “connections to food, recovery and housing stabilization guidance.”

Each cabin has a bed(s), heat and electricity. Residents share dining, bathroom and shower facilities housed in a separate building.

How it Works

Graham said the Grover Beach facility is a “90-day temporary supportive housing model.” And it, “operates a closed campus, 24-hours a day and features 20 supportive housing units, communal restrooms and bathing facilities, a shared dining hall, a dog wash, assigned storage space, a staff-operations building and two case worker offices.”

The County is modeling the Morro Bay temporary housing project after the Grover Beach facility, however, at this point, it’s unclear how it would be laid out or who would run it. The City doesn’t even know what a permit review looks like at this point.

Those are some of numerous questions that will have to be answered if the County lands the grant and puts together an actual project for review.

Supervisors Support Concept

County Supervisors lent their support for this type of housing with an ordinance passed back in 2021. “To move forward with this model,” Graham said, “a temporary County ordinance was approved to establish minimum safety standards for any subject emergency housing facility located on County owned or leased public facilities.”

Graham told Estero Bay News that what the County is looking for would be 10-20 units and have a local non-profit be in charge of the operation and provide housing services, and more.

The preferred site being used for the grant application, is the oddly shaped lot by Couch Potato. The current owner is Habib Tabrizi, according to Graham’s report, and the County is negotiating on a lease. 

Differences with Morro Bay Project

While a County project in Morro Bay would be similar to the one in Grover Beach, there are differences. “It would likely be fewer units than the Grover Beach project,” Graham told EBN, “but they may look at using a different format as well — attached units to make more efficient use of space.”

As far as environmental issues go, Graham said they would figure out how to review it once they have a formal application. Though the creek is cement lined, it’s still considered a protected public waterway under State and Federal environmental laws with special requirements, for instance a required 50-foot setback from the creek that if enforced, wouldn’t leave much space for the tiny homes.

Graham isn’t sure at this point what the permitting process will look like.

“We would go through some type of permitting process,” Graham said. “We won’t have that nailed down until we have an actual project.”

What ‘Temporary’ Means

Another issue would be the meaning of the word “temporary.” 

“Temporary in this instance,” Graham said, “would likely be a year or two but could be longer depending on funding and success of the program.”

But “temporary” doesn’t mean “permanent,” and Graham said the project will need to have a plan in place for when it’s to be closed and removed.

“A full de-mobilization plan will be built into the grant application,” Graham’s report said, “to ensure the selected site is restored if the program is unsuccessful.”

Why so Expensive?

So why would a handful of little, shed-like shelters cost $5 million? 

Out of the grant will come money for an Encampment Project Manager and a “dedicated service provider for the duration of the grant period, which runs through July 2026. 

“On-site wrap around services,” Graham said, “will be prioritized, as well as a closed campus location that is within walking distance to additional critical services.”

The Quintana Road property is a couple of blocks away from a County Department of Social Services office, located at Quintana and Kennedy Way in a, former Security Pacific Bank building.

The County should know sometime this summer if it got the grant and can begin what promises to be a well-scrutinized project by the public.

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