Not unlike many cities in California, homelessness has long been one of the most important and controversial policy issues facing the City of San Luis Obispo.
In 2019, the number of individuals experiencing homelessness in San Luis Obispo County was estimated to be 1,483, and of that estimate, only 21% were sheltered. In recent years, the City has faced public scrutiny over its handling of the situation, which many feel has been inadequate. While the City has taken positive actions to address the problem, they have also taken actions which have only made the problem worse.
Sadly, the City of San Luis Obispo is not unique in its mishandling of the problem and many other cities in California and across the country have failed to adequately serve their unhoused citizenry. However, San Luis Obispo has a distinct track record of criminalizing homelessness and failing to enact meaningful policy changes.
Municipalities across the country have devised numerous legal mechanisms with which to criminalize the mere act of being homeless. These include bans on panhandling, loitering, outdoor camping, and many other daily activities necessary for the basic survival of unhoused individuals. Perhaps the most egregious of these statutes—and the one for which San Luis Obispo is the most well-known—is the car sleeping ban. In 1995, San Luis Obispo’s City Council adopted Municipal Code 17.16.015 which states the following:
No recreational vehicle, camper shell, automobile or similar device shall be used for living or sleeping quarters except in a lawfully operated mobile home park, travel trailer park, or campground, except as provided in section 17.08.010(C)(4) et seq.
The ordinance was amended in 2005 to specifically ban the act of sleeping in automobiles outside of allowed areas such as campgrounds. Until 2012, the ordinance was rarely (if ever) enforced. Moreover, the City failed to put up signs on public streets notifying the public of the ordinance. Today, these signs can be found in many places throughout San Luis Obispo and the ordinance, albeit slightly modified, is actively enforced. What happened?
In 1997, the Prado Day Center was established along Prado Road near the City’s wastewater treatment facility to serve the City’s houseless population. The center provided meals, access to showers, as well as other social services. Moreover, patrons with access to a vehicle (roughly half of San Luis Obispo’s houseless population at the time) were encouraged to sleep in their vehicles along Prado Road if the City’s limited shelter space was full.
In 2012, 15 years after the Prado Day Center had been established, the City suddenly began enforcing the car sleeping ban, focusing their efforts on Prado Road. Officers from the San Luis Obispo Police Department conducted sweeps in the middle of the night, knocking aggressively on vehicles until sleeping occupants were awakened and came out. Citations were then issued, ranging in cost depending on the specific nature of the offense, and individuals were often told to leave town.
The sudden (and oftentimes harsh) enforcement of San Luis Obispo’s car sleeping ordinance did not go unnoticed, receiving attention from both the local media and the public. During a March City Council meeting, the issue was discussed at great length, leading to a short-term technocratic solution (a very on-brand public policy outcome in these types of situations). The City decided to suspend the enforcement of the ordinance in the Prado Day Center’s city-owned parking lot for six months, enacting a safe parking pilot program. However, this lot only accommodated five vehicles, nowhere near the estimated 60 vehicles in need of safe parking at the time. Enforcement of the ordinance continued on San Luis Obispo’s streets outside of the parking lot.
In April of 2012, two local Attorneys filed a complaint against the City of San Luis Obispo on behalf of the SLO Homeless Alliance, challenging the legality of the car sleeping ban. After hearing the case, a San Luis Obispo County Superior Court judge issued a preliminary injunction, meaning that the City was barred from enforcing its car sleeping ban until further legal proceedings occurred. Central to the court’s reasoning was the way in which Municipal Code 17.16.015 was enforced. Typically, city code enforcement officers deal with issues relating to property development standards in a less confrontational manner. Since the ordinance in question technically fell under this umbrella, the aggressive manner in which the police acted in issuing citations and enforcing the ordinance was legally questionable. The court highly doubted that the same level of enforcement would be applied to residents with RVs on their street. In other words, the manner in which the ordinance was enforced singled out individuals living in their vehicles out of necessity. In response to the preliminary injunction, the City Council modified the ordinance into its current form—a citywide ban on vehicle camping between the hours of 10:00PM and 6:00AM.
Did this solve the problem? Not really… The short term solution addressed certain issues central to the lawsuit and public outcry, namely the night raids along Prado Road. However, the ordinance continued to criminalize the act of sleeping in one’s vehicle on the side of city streets, during the exact hours when people typically sleep.
One important dynamic to the situation is that San Luis Obispo is a college town. This has a number of implications on the housing market, the most important one being that rents are generally fairly high and that affordable housing is hard to come by. According to the 2018 Cal Poly Basic Needs Task Force Report, 12% of Cal Poly students experienced homelessness, a slightly higher figure than the CSU average. Unhoused Cal Poly students are among those victimized by the City of San Luis Obispo’s criminalization of homelessness.
That being said, Cal Poly presents a potential solution to the problem, simply because it does not fall under the city’s jurisdiction. The City’s car sleeping ban does not apply to parking facilities located on the Cal Poly campus (of which there are many). Unsurprisingly, Cal Poly has their own restriction, banning individuals from living and sleeping in their vehicles outright. However, the mechanics of amending the ban and or creating a safe parking program would be quite different for Cal Poly than they would be for the City of San Luis Obispo. While the largest barrier to the City repealing or modifying the ban would likely be members of the public, Cal Poly would face different obstacles in changing their ordinance—likely forces within the California State University (CSU) bureaucracy.
Earlier this year, Cal Poly students Trevor Winnard, Trenton Dusablon, Tess Loarie, Ila Moncrief, Sharon Ng researched these issues in their Political Science course and decided to take action by creating an online petition which garnered attention in the Cal Poly community. The petition was simple, urging the Cal Poly Associated Students Inc. (ASI) to adopt a resolution creating a safe parking program on the Cal Poly campus.
In a discussion with .WAV, Winnard discussed the petitions as well as his broader thoughts on the housing issues faced by many Cal Poly students. While he acknowledged the minimal nature of the proposed solutions, he pointed to their primary strength—feasibility. In its simplest form, a safe parking program at Cal Poly would only require the modification or repeal of the existing parking ordinance. The petition calls for a slightly-more accommodating arrangement, with a secured parking area and access to campus bathroom and kitchen facilities.
In its fully-realized form, the safe parking program called for in the petition would not be asking much from Cal Poly in terms of capital or operational cost. An abundance of parking spaces already exist and the campus is patrolled at night by Cal Poly’s police department, providing security. As for the petition’s recommendation of bathroom and kitchen facilities, these also currently exist in various locations throughout campus, although existing facilities may be inadequate. Regardless, the basic demand of a safe parking program is reasonable, and the barriers to enacting such a program are likely more bureaucratic than they are practical.
Though safe parking programs have been proposed at other universities in California, none have been opened to date. Given the restrictive ordinance affecting the rest of the city, Cal Poly could be a first, providing a basic yet essential service to its own students in-need, as well as the broader community. This outcome wouldn’t solve the problem of homelessness, but it would be a slight step in the right direction. Addressing the issue on a more substantive level would require major policy interventions at the local, state, and federal levels. At a minimum, it is imperative that individuals experiencing houselessness are treated with dignity and that their mere existence is not criminalized, as it often is. The petition is still active and can be found here. An ASI vote on whether or not to adopt the resolution is scheduled for Wednesday, May 5th.
Hank Mckay is a .WAV editorial writer, he wrote the article. Renee Kao is .WAV’s Creative Director, she created the graphic.