Homelessness in SLO County is our fault

July 20, 2021

Gordon Mullin


“I got a right to be here” growled the homeless gentleman I was talking to just off the trail near our local sewage plant. I was riding my bike along the path and he hailed me down for a chat. As it turns out, he actually wanted to hit me up for money, but I stayed briefly for the conversation.

He was from another state, but he had heard that life was better out on the Central Coast. I agreed with him and then asked what he would do if the cops asked him to move. He first reasserted his rights, paused, then shrugged his shoulders and said he’d probably just find another place. Somewhere else.

There have always been folks who had no place to call home but certainly the numbers have climbed in the last 20 years, especially in California. Estimates run between 150,000 to over one-quarter million in our golden state today. How accurately can we count people who have no residence? Not well obviously.

You’ve heard the ‘whys’ many times: drugs, alcoholism, mental health, job loss, evicted from their prior home due to misbehavior, didn’t pay the rent or mortgage, marital breakup, committed crimes and perhaps they just have a low IQ and can’t hold a job- can’t function in society.

Admittedly, that’s a quick overview of the who and why. The pertinent question I’d like us to consider today is- in what way do our institutions, our laws and our expectations add to the problem. What’s our fault; you and me as voters and influencers of our local and state governments?

The readers of this missive are highly unlikely to be homeless. We’re the one’s who pay taxes and vote. We have the ultimate power through the ballot box. So today, I ask, what should we, what can we, through our governments, do to mitigate the problem.

This being California, lets start with our dysfunctional housing laws and regulations. We have some of the most expensive housing in America and, at base, it’s because we don’t want new homes and apartments built nearby- NIMBYism. Every effort by a developer to build housing in our state is met with ever increasing regulations, zoning restrictions, angry neighbors, escalating fees, costly regulatory delays and layers of administrative bodies that demand homage and paperwork.

I have builder friends in their eighties and nineties who built hundreds of homes and apartments in this county. Their stories of the comparative ease they met when seeking building permits some 50 years ago are heartbreaking. They could build a home within six months, from the purchase of the land to handing over the key, make a profit and the average working family could move in and pay a smaller portion of their paycheck then than the average worker would today. And their homes still stand.

Try the same exercise now – count on, at minimum, two years of administrative grief and north of $50,000 in government fees.

It’s our fault there’s not enough ‘workforce’ housing. We voted in legislators who happily added yet another shackle to the ankles of the building industry, link by link.

We also allowed, through legislation and court action, the dismemberment of mental institutions which housed those who cannot function in the general society. Yes, there is a good argument that some who were forced into our institutions should not have been but we’ve gone too far the other direction.

Ask a cop, “How much of your time is spent dealing with the crazies” and she’ll start with a groan. Our guys in blue have to deal with the fallout of our mistaken over-reach in the 80’s when we opened the doors of our mental institutions and failed to provide appropriate alternatives and threw away the laws that could mandate that, for example, the mentally ill must take their medications. We did that.

Another ancillary mistake is the legislative removal of appropriate responses to criminal behavior. Yes, I can walk into a store, load up a bag full of goodies, under $950, and walk out with the loot. If caught, it’s a misdemeanor. I won’t spend any time in jail. If I’m homeless, I won’t pay a fine.

I can steal, in broad daylight, a $200 shopping cart from a grocery store and the likelihood of a negative legal response is zip. Nothing.

I am reminded of the adage, “Every dysfunctional behavior that is tolerated, is encouraged.” None of us would think that we should raise our children with these standards, or at least I hope not, so why do we tolerate this behavior from our every growing criminal and homeless class?

Just as we no longer demand that our fellow citizens cannot defecate in the civic space, a public health mandate 2000 years in the making, we no longer, as a citizenry, embrace that the solutions to these problems lie with us. We say it’s someone else’s dilemma. Our politicians perhaps? Not me and thee.

I know that not everyone will embrace these sentiments. I will no doubt hear that the homeless and the criminals should be given extra latitude because of…. fill in the blank. And I am inclined to agree. Yes, give consideration, but only up to a point.

I think now we’ve gone too far and we accept aberrant behavior that even 20 years ago would not have been endured. We should stop now and head in the opposite direction.

You and I have the power of the ballot box.  There’s a state election coming up in two months and we, collectively, have the opportunity to steer our ship of state onto a different course.

Please, embrace the opportunity. We have the power; we have the responsibility.

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Where the point comes from matters not at all, but the points made are good ones. Do we live in a society of laws or don’t we?

So the answer is to build more homes? Hardly. Not buying it. Just another article trying to put more money into developers’ hands who don’t give a rip about the homeless, or quality of life.

….and raise taxes, of course

I hear that a lot, if we just weren’t so regulated and let builders build more homes… I don’t think the answer is that simple. Case in point, what if you waved a magic wand and all of a sudden 1000 more single family units appeared on the market in SLO. To take it one step further, what if you made them affordable, I mean super affordable like less than half of market value, say $200k-$300k and studio rentals for say, $800-$1000 per months, really affordable. How many homeless would snatch them up? I mean, even a small mortgage or a cheap rent cost money, which means having a job that provides consistent income, and some semblance of credit, responsibility, and all the trappings we expect from functioning adults, anywhere, not just here but in the world…

In my example I submit there are some working poor that might pick up a few of these low cost units as rentals, but on any given day in SLO, when you see the sadness walking around, yelling at the sky, falling down and disheveled, the rampant evidence of real mental illness, really serious personal issues, you realize that the homeless problem is not just a matter of affordable housing. Look, the issue is way more complex than that and it is societal. I don’t have the answer but what I do know is that it is not a simple housing issue and, America is failing miserably at addressing it.

We have a real public health issue in this country, worse than COVID, gun violence, aids, etc…It’s called mental illness and except for a few institutions and organizations that are maxed out doing the best they can with what they have, as a society we throw a few platitudes and dollars at it, purchase hotel rooms, turn the other way and get indignant when citizens cry about neighborhoods, downtowns, pristine parks and beaches becoming strewn with tent cities, human waste and human despair. Our leadership of every level, of every stripe is paralyzed with the idea of tackling it like other big issues of the day.

Homelessness IN and around SLO, are the result of local colleges such as Cuesta & CalPolyCorp.’s not providing for student housing while increasing enrollment. People who have been here for generations, can only “buy” a home if it is already in their family, or if the family has their money diversified in multiple properties or over the grade. The fee’s required to do anything (permits) are part of what keeps (local, city/county jobs)/ state gov’t funded, unfortunately.

Aside from that, do you know what the main difference between ancillary employees vs. people who are homelessness/jailed is?The employed get to choose where they spend their gov’t issued pay-warrant and sleep in an actual bed in exchange for their 40 hour work-week.They work towards that golden egg, yes, but it’s socialism in disguise when local government salaries are as over-inflated as they have become under the guise of needing $ to afford to live in slo.They take their gov issued salary/retirement monies to Costco to buy the same products as the next guy. Rotisserie chicken, check. Choice of 3 different salad blends from (sometimes local) farmers (subsidized by the gov’t no less!!), check. California has become the epitome of a rat race over the last 25 years. Do you know the best tenant you can have is one being paid for by a gov’t entity? Section 8. The DMV, CalTrans, etc. on lower Higuera are cash cows b/c of commercial real estate leases (easy money in the pockets of the Copeland’s, Rossi’s, Walter’s, Wallace’s, and other LLC’s comprised of physicians (Osos St) or the Santa Maria plaza where the IRS & social security buildings are, to name a few,etc)…….There’s a reason why the homeless camps are situated within walking distance to the slo social security and Employment Development dept., Move those welfare-type services to another town and the homeless will follow. But the big guys will never let their cash cows be eliminated.

By all means, keep replacing the only affordable housing that was left here with cute tinyhomes aka air b&b’s and going after people like Devaul/Sunny Acres who actually try to help with the homeless.(That last sentence was sarcastic.)

I completely forgot: The Richardson family!

Good point, we are the problem!!!

We live in a one party State, we keep doubling down with the same solutions with the same results:(

They built a tiny house community in southern California, by the time all the politicians, consultants and unions got their cut of the funding, they came in at over $900,000.00 per unit!!!

And yet ANOTHER fire in the Salinas River (riverbed) today…its starting to happen so frequently I suspect some are being intentionally set for whatever reasons..We can try to provide stuff for those who are defined as homeless but until the real issues are addressed, and at times that might seem unpleasant, we’re just putting bandaids on serious problems. At some point the free-for-all mentality that’s somehow become so prevalent has to be controlled.