Written by: Dominic Tartaglia, Executive Director
There are many different names I hear used to describe some of our most noticeable population in Downtown, those names being “homeless” and “transient.” Oftentimes I take pause when I hear the names, not because of the people being described but due to the context in which the names are used. In light of several recent events and the resulting concern of business owners’ and fear expressed by would be shoppers, I feel compelled to clarify a few key points about this demographic of our community. I would also like to address how we, as an organization, are working to resolve associated issues.
Before I can explain our attempts to help alleviate concerns I want to address the fact that these two names represent two very different types of individual. First there is the homeless population as a whole, which includes many different types of people with many different issues and reasons for being homeless. Some wish to be housed, some choose not to be housed and some have a lifestyle that does not allow for them to have housing whether it be mental illness, anti-social behavior or substance abuse issues. Within the larger group I would further clarify that the folks that are looking for ways to be off of the streets and in a “normal” lifestyle are the individuals that are in a sense, invisible. By looking at them you would not be able to tell that they are homeless. They have jobs, are caring for family members or are trying to navigate the complex system in place to receive aid.
The part of the homeless population that most people see and take issue with is the transient population we see Downtown on a daily basis. The individuals that aggressively panhandle for funds, some have large scary dogs, some are intimidating in the way they address shoppers and others are downright obnoxious. What if I told you that not all of those individuals are classified as homeless? Not all of those individuals are homeless but they want you to think so. For some of those individuals they are making a subsistence living off of the sympathy of people walking by and giving them a few bucks or a hamburger. Others choose to be homeless and live a nomadic lifestyle following good weather and sympathetic communities. The problem with being a sympathetic community is that while people may feel like they are helping somebody down on their luck, oftentimes they are actually perpetuating a bigger problem for the transient and the community. They are enabling that individual to stay on the streets and encouraging antisocial behavior. Needless to say, there is a big difference between the transient and homeless populations.
So why is the clarification so important? Without the clarification between homelessness and transiency many people put them into the same basket. Too often that basket carries a negative connotation and I want to stop that. In fact, our local homeless service providers, the police department and other concerned citizens all want to stop the generalization of a very complex demographic because it is, quite frankly, an issue that is extremely complex. The solution requires great compassion, determination and a little bit of tough love. So how do we plan to help the people seeking assistance and humanely deter transient related intimidation and crime?
The efforts to work toward solutions have many different levels of involvement from the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association and a large number of other stakeholders. The foremost thing we are doing is talking with interested parties. While talking may not seem like an action item that will solve anything at first look, it is in fact how we have been able to start making headway toward actionable items. Discussions with other groups resulted in the Downtown Security program, which today has transformed into our Ambassador Program. It also formed the Directed Giving Committee, provided direction for our relationship with SLO PD and local business owners, our involvement with the Homeless Advisory Council and the Homeless Foundation of San Luis Obispo County and our ongoing involvement with the Friends of Prado. All of these groups exercise compassion in attempts to help the most vulnerable people while encouraging behavior that is conducive to being a part of a safe and healthy community.
Our Downtown Ambassador Program is a direct result of the relationship we have with the City and SLO PD in which our Ambassadors no longer serve as security force but as the middle man between would be criminals and the Police in addition to our friendly liaisons to the community. Not only do Ambassadors observe problem activities and report them to the police, they are the carrot before the stick to move troublesome individuals along. Often times they simply need to inform transients that it is time to move on to generate a positive resolution, if that does not resolve issues they let the police address the matter. They also are responsible for checking in with member business to hear reports of many non-transient related concerns and relay them to Downtown Association staff for further actions. Ambassadors are one of our greatest assets in terms of their adaptability to resolve a wide range of issues including aggressive panhandling.
We also have the Directed Giving Committee, a the collaboration between SLO PD, City Administration, United Way and Downtown Association to encourage people to stop giving handouts on the street and to turn their donations toward crucial services to help the homeless population that needs it most. By supporting our Make Change Count meters and not giving handouts on the street our hope is that we will discourage aggressive panhandling and the message will be clear that our community does not condone antisocial behavior. The change from those meters goes directly to a service provider that utilizes those funds for sobriety based programs for families and individuals trying to get back on their feet and under a reliable roof. To date $8,500 has been delivered to Prado Day Center. Additionally, our association takes donations at our semi-annual breakfasts and passes 100% of those funds to Prado, which is generally around $1,000 for the year. When you give at the meter you are helping us to give a hand up and not a hand out.
Our strategy is to be a part of the solution and our participation on the Homeless Advisory Council (HAC) and Homeless Foundation for SLO County (HFSLOC) is critical in helping to put more people into housing. The HAC is a group of the county’s homeless service providers and stakeholders that meet monthly to discuss the progress of a myriad of programs dedicated solely to homeless issues ranging from providing medical and mental evaluations to placing the most delicate individuals into homes. Within that there is a community/Downtown sub-committee that focuses predominantly on the Downtown transient population and how each stakeholder is making progress on specific individuals or areas. Again, SLO PD is involved with this group via the officers of the Community Action Team, often referred to as the CAT team. When we talk about issues the focus is solution based and compassionately driven with the hope being that even our most troublesome individuals can eventually get into a program that will help them make positive decisions for their future.
The HFSLOC is the funding and organizational body that is behind the future development of the new homeless service center at 40 Prado Lane. The Foundation is paramount to helping the population of individuals that rely on the services currently provided by the County, Maxine Lewis and Prado Day Center. The Foundation aims to build a center that will house all of those services under one roof for eligible individuals that want to get off the streets. It is important to note that we are not providing services to individuals that are not committed to improving their lives. It may be hard to say that because an individual is not sober they cannot use the center but the fact of the matter is that they make other individuals feel unsafe or uncomfortable the same way that they make shoppers and business owners uncomfortable Downtown.
The bottom line here is that the Downtown Association is extremely involved with the process to help stop aggressive panhandling and alleviate homelessness in the community but we do not have the silver bullet. I do not even think that a silver bullet exists. If you wish to be a part of the solution I welcome you to volunteer your time at a shelter, to make a donation at one of our Make Change Count Meters or to reach out to our office for more information on how you can help. By making donations to services or volunteering your time you are giving a hand up instead of a handout. That hand up may be the difference between chronic homelessness and a home. Please join us in discouraging antisocial behavior and encouraging positive solutions to alleviate chronic homelessness.