Homelessness in San Luis Obispo County is a very real problem. SLO County recently published a study (read it here) on the root causes of homelessness in SLO County, confirming it is one of the biggest issues impacting our community. The census, conducted in January 2017, found that there were 1,125 homeless persons in SLO County. Many state that the root cause is that there aren’t enough vacant rental units available. This report can be summed up in their statement that, “Insufficient supply of housing continues to be the biggest barrier to eliminating homelessness in the County.”
The 2017 study also showed a recent decrease in homelessness, due largely to the implementation of programs such as the Housing Support Program (HSP), a program run in partnership between SLO County’s Department of Social Services (DSS) and the Family Care Network. I just recently started my position as a Parent Partner for HSP families, but my history with the program goes back much farther than that. It wasn’t very long ago that I was homeless myself, and subsequently a recipient of the HSP’s services.
There are many causes of homelessness. In my own experience, there wasn’t just one issue which resulted in me not having a home. A few years ago, I found myself in a rough position. The pressures of being a young, single mom were getting difficult to manage, and with the lack of affordable housing in my area, homelessness became a reality that I never anticipated. As a former foster youth, I didn’t have family with whom I could fall back on. But thankfully, the small support system I did have, allowed my children and I to camp in their backyard and in my car nearby when we no longer had a home. Our situation was very bleak, but then a county worker told me about HSP. Today, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. While my circle of support wasn’t large, it was just big enough to give me the support I needed to obtain housing in this insufficient and grossly competitive housing market. I’m thankful to report that my family is now housed and that I have not only completed the HSP program successfully, but I now get to support other families in their journeys towards self-sufficiency.
As a Parent Partner, I am a first-hand witness to the many causes of homelessness in our community, and it’s probably not what most people think. First of all, families can be on waiting lists for affordable and low-income housing in SLO County for five years or longer! Also, many people don’t have a sufficient support system to help them find housing in our area where most housing opportunities are shared through word-of-mouth. Also, income is an issue. Single parents have an especially difficult time securing proper housing because they don’t usually make enough money to qualify for low-income housing--the cost of housing can only be a third or less of their monthly income which in many cases just isn’t possible. Lower wages in our County can mean that half or more of a parent’s monthly income goes to cover their rent. And families are also subject to ever increasing rental prices as well as struggling to compete in a very competitive rental market. Renters today are usually required to have a consistent and lengthy rental and income history, which can be difficult to achieve for those who have experienced bouts of homelessness and unemployment due to any myriad of problems already noted. When you start naming all of the obstacles facing struggling families in our community, it is easy to see why many can suddenly find themselves homeless and without a foreseeable way out.
Families in need of housing are referred to the Housing Support Program through their Department of Social Services ERS Worker (the Foodstamp and Cashaid worker). Once they are accepted into the program, HSP supports each family in building a dependable support system and offers life skills development courses on topics such as: budgeting, credit repair, communication and other vital skills which may be posing an obstacle. In addition to workshops, HSP requires weekly meetings with a case manager during which families receive support and affirmation as well as accountability in meeting their individual goals. Case managers support families in overcoming their specific barriers and provides them with assistance, such as bus passes or gas cards if needed. HSP also assists families with completing paperwork, paying housing deposits, and even supports them with rent for a short period of time until families become successfully self-sufficient.
Because I’ve also received services, I have first-hand knowledge of what homeless families need to achieve their goals. I believe having a dependable support system within their community is a key ingredient to a family’s success. A support system provides not just accountability, but also affirmation for them as they work hard to meet their needs and achieve their goals. Just last week, a mom I work with called me to share the good news that she had gotten a call back for a job interview. She was so happy to share this good news with me, but I knew part of this was because she didn’t have anyone else she could share it with. This amazing mother has put her name on many waiting lists for housing, and in the meantime is determined to find stable employment so that she can afford rent on her own. Little successes for families like ours are a big deal, and sometimes the most meaningful thing we can do is just be present for them, providing a listening ear and a word of encouragement to keep them moving on forward to the next challenge.
Perhaps you know a family who is struggling to make ends meet, or someone who has lost their home due to rising housing costs, or maybe you know a single parent who has lost their job and is at risk of losing their housing. We all know someone, maybe even ourselves, facing these difficult, life-changing situations. Life can turn upside down at any moment, and being alone in our struggles makes any difficult situation so much harder. If you know someone who is struggling or going through a rough patch in life, reach out to them; encourage them and help them access our local services and supports available. But most importantly, make sure they know that they have a support system and a community willing to walk alongside them and hold them up should they need it; this is what makes the Central Coast great and what sets us apart from others--our strong sense of community and compassionate care that we have for one another.
For more information on local housing support services, please contact the Department of Social Services at (805) 781-1600