Feature Image: A homeless woman sits along Quintana Road amid belongings that were bagged up for disposal during a homeless encampment cleanup by City and State officials on May 29. Photo by Neil Farrell

Recently, the City of Morro Bay and state officials conducted a cleanup of homeless encampments along Quintana Road and Willow Camp Creek. 

The cleanup was no doubt very upsetting to the unfortunate folks there — to have their belongings gathered up, bagged, and thrown in a dumpster would upset anyone. 

It was similar to other cleanups the city has done along Morro Creek at Lila Keiser Park, which is the other main area where some have carved themselves out a niche for survival.

But the Quintana cleanup could lead to something finally being done for the folks who live in the creeks.

Over the past several years, unhoused folks have taken up living among the trees and bushes along Willow Camp Creek, which in that area is just a cement drainage ditch. The seasonal creek begins as a drainage swale in the hills above Morro Bay Boulevard on the east side of Highway 1. 

The creek crosses under the highway, runs along Quintana Road and again goes underground to cross Main Street neat Lemos Ranch Pet Supply Store. It also takes the rain runoff from the highway.

It daylights again behind the power plant property and ultimately empties into Morro Creek by Lila Keiser Park.

The Quintana stretch is popular for the homeless in town as it’s very close to markets, a laundromat, restaurants, and other places. But it also attracts some unsavory folks, as the police department’s weekly media logs show time and again officers contacting people down there with multiple bench warrants or dealing drugs and more.

The City Council recently approved a letter of support for an effort by SLO County to help the folks on Quintana Road. In May, the city’s Community Development Director Scot Graham sought support for the county’s effort to get some money to put towards the issue.

SLO County’s Homeless Services Division will apply for a $5 million grant from the second round of funding from the State’s “Encampment Resolution Funding Program,” money being funneled through the California Interagency Council on Homelessness. 

According to the state’s website, the program is a “$350 million competitive grant program available to assist local jurisdictions in ensuring the wellness and safety of people experiencing homelessness in encampments by providing services and supports that address their immediate physical and mental wellness and result in meaningful paths to safe and stable housing. Eligible applicants include counties, Continuums of Care [CoCs], and cities of any size.”

“Up to $237 million is available for award,” in this second round, Graham said in his staff report, “on a rolling basis until June 30, or until funds are exhausted. The purpose of the grant is to resolve critical encampment concerns and funding can only be used for programs that connect people experiencing homelessness in encampments to interim shelter with clear pathways to permanent housing.”

The county identified the Quintana Road encampment as qualifying for the program, according to Graham.

“The County is seeking to apply for the grant with the intent of establishing a temporary supportive housing campus modeled after the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition’s Grover Beach Cabins-for-Change Program in this location,” he said.

What’s emerged — only conceptually at this point — is bringing in several little, prebuilt shelters, or “tiny homes” as they are sometimes referred, and arranging them in a mini-neighborhood of sorts on a vacant lot just south of the Couch Potato furniture store on the east side of Quintana, similar to a program the county put in last December.

That South County facility is a “90-day, temporary supportive housing model in Grover Beach,” Graham said. “[It] operates a closed campus 24 hours a day, and features 20 supportive housing units, communal restrooms, and bathing facilities, a shared dining hall, a dog wash, assigned storage space, a staff-operations building, and two case worker offices. The units are just over 100 square feet in size, and come equipped with heating and air conditioning.”

County supervisors have already been working on these types of facilities. 

“To move forward with this model,” Graham said, “a temporary County ordinance was approved to establish minimum safety standards for any subject emergency housing facility located on county-owned or leased public facilities.”

In Grover Beach, their facility is on county-owned property adjacent to a county public health clinic and Drug and Alcohol Services office.

What they have in mind in Morro Bay is 10-20 “units” and have an as-yet-unidentified nonprofit run it and provide services that would ostensibly help them find permanent housing. So far, all the city has had to do was approve a letter.

“The county,” Graham said, “is proposing to take the lead in writing, submitting, and administering the ERF-2-R grant application and is requesting the city assist with the development of the program, identification, and provision of suitable location for the campus and securing of local permits to develop the site.

“Grant awards will be prioritized for applications that demonstrate collaboration while protecting the health and well-being of individuals living in encampments,” he added.

Right now, the preferred site, or at least the one that’s part of the grant application, is the vacant lot by Couch Potato. That oddly shaped lot had been for sale, but apparently had no takers. The current owner is Habib Tabrizi, according to the report, and the county is looking to negotiate some kind of lease. 

While a county project in Morro Bay would be similar to the one in Grover Beach, there are differences. 

“It would like be fewer units than the Grover Beach project,” Graham told Morro Bay Life, “but they may look at using a different format as well — attached units to make more efficient use of space.”

Though this first step by the City Council didn’t need any environmental review, Graham said once there’s a formal project submitted, it would trigger a permitting process. Just what that will entail is unknown at this time; however, if these tiny homes are to have electricity and heating and air, plus a shower facility and more, it’ll require a lot more than just setting down a bunch of little houses sitting on the dirt.

“We would go through some type of permitting process,” Graham said. “Won’t have that nailed down until we have an actual project.”

And what is meant by the term “temporary,” since often when something is built on a “temporary basis,” —especially housing — it’s tough to take it away?

“Temporary in this instance,” Graham said, “would likely be a year or two but could be longer depending on funding and success of the program.”

The grant program is slated to expire in 2026, so continuing this beyond that would take more money, which has always been the number one roadblock for the city to do something for the local homeless beyond cleaning up their hideaways from time to time.

The project is anticipated to be ready for its inevitable closure, unlike the county’s Safe Parking Site on Oklahoma Avenue, that was begun in 2022, mainly to address the dozens of people that were parking RVs and vehicles and essentially living on Palisades Avenue in Los Osos.

The county Grand Jury recently released a report on that Oklahoma Avenue facility and sharply criticized the county for not doing proper preplanning, having a lack of amenities and services, and poor management by contractors. 

The Oklahoma Safe Parking Site was plagued by criminal activity, drug abuse, and more. Two people living at the site died — one in a trailer fire and the other of a drug overdose. A woman resident of the site was arrested for allegedly selling the overdose victim the fentanyl that killed him.

The same county agency that set up that facility is working on the one in Morro Bay too, but it sounds like they’re learning from past mistakes.

“A full de-mobilization plan will be built into the grant application to ensure the selected site is restored if the program is unsuccessful,” Graham’s report said.

The grant money would pay for an “encampment project manager” and a dedicated service provider to manage encampment outreach and on-site operations for the duration of the grant period, which runs through June of 2026. 

“On-site wrap around services will be prioritized as well as a closed campus location that is within walking distance to additional critical services,” the report said.

So while the potential project would be only a temporary fix, it might lead to greater efforts to help the homeless here.