Revamp or Replace: A Response to the County’s Closure of the Safe Parking Site 

For two years I worked in SLO, providing life-saving assistance to the homeless population and intravenous drug users. I would dispose of their used syringes and provide them with safe injection supplies. Working with this population, I learned of the tribulations they experience and which services they find helpful. While many homeless service programs are in place here, they are unsustainable, particularly for those experiencing vehicular homelessness. 

As of Point-in-Time data captured in 2022, 1,448 individuals in SLO County are experiencing homelessness. Of these, more than 25% are living in a vehicle. Beginning in 2004, California created programs to protect the safety of those experiencing vehicular homelessness in the form of safe parking sites; areas of open land where people can legally park overnight, with the goal of offering stability and protected parking to this population.

SLO established its own safe parking program, the Oklahoma Ave. Safe Parking Site, in 2021.This site has been effective, with nearly 60% of its residents successfully moving forward into housing.

When the site was established, the county claimed it was intended to be a temporary resource, but never gave a timeline on the site’s expected existence. Shortly after the site’s origin, the county began enforcing ordinances that prohibited residents from living in their vehicles. These residents were referred to Oklahoma Avenue. 

According to SLO’s municipal code, overnight camping is prohibited along city streets and in city-owned parking. This code has one exception: those parking in safe parking programs or similar vehicle shelters. This exception is made, “in support of the homeless community of San Luis Obispo”. 

In early 2023, the county announced its plan to phase out the site, leaving out a specific date of closure. This abrupt announcement led to unrest in the community, leading the Homeless Union to protest and file a federal lawsuit against the county. 

The county claims the closure is due to safety concerns over the site’s durability. A grand jury report stated issues with security, fire danger, and resident drug use are “plaguing” the site. Reports mention the site was opened with little planning or thought put into operations. Fire safety is another concern, with combustible materials being stored in close proximity to the site with no fire plan set in case of an emergency.

The poor reasoning for the site’s closure combined with a lack of allocated funding on the issue creates an urgent need to be addressed. To uphold SLO’s commitment to supporting those experiencing vehicular homelessness, the county needs to allocate proper funding towards the site’s reliability. On February 13th, 2024, SLO County announced the availability of $5.5 million in grant funds to improve homeless services. A portion of these funds should be allocated to the proper renewal and maintenance of a safe parking site for the hundreds of residents that have reported a need for this service. The funding and intention to protect the homeless is present, but this specific population is being overlooked and their resources are not properly maintained.

Mia Halladay 

University of Southern California -Los Angeles

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