San Luis Obispo’s City Council passed a second reading of an ordinance explicitly banning tents from city parks on May 3—a year after it passed a first reading of the ordinance but delayed a final vote amid allegations that the policy violated the rights of homeless people.
The tent ban first came to the council in April 2021, as an influx of tents and homelessness in Mitchell Park led to public safety and vandalism concerns, according to the city. City officials said that while they interpreted existing code to disallow tents in parks, the language could be made clearer.
“We did bring forward language to clarify and make absolutely transparent to the entire community what the rules are,” SLO City Attorney Christine Dietrick said on May 3. “That’s all it was intended to accomplish, is to say out loud, in public, in an understandable way precisely what our rules are.”
In the year since the council put the ordinance on hold, the California Rural Legal Assistance filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s enforcement of a variety of ordinances seen as targeting the unhoused community.
And that’s exactly what several speakers at the May 3 meeting thought the tent ordinance did as well. One speaker, Ethan, a student at Cal Poly, who experienced homelessness growing up, reminded the council that “no one wants to sleep in a tent.”
“I didn’t want to sleep in a car. No one wants to do this. It’s what they have to do. That’s their only option,” Ethan said. “Why are we criminalizing this sad, sad state of affairs? … We need to allow people to sleep and live where they are, and find solutions so that doesn’t happen in the future.”
Dietrick and City Manager Derek Johnson emphasized that the city continues to invest in more homeless services and resources but maintained that it does not consider encampments as humane forms of shelter, or city parks as appropriate places to host them. Dietrick described the situation that developed in Mitchell Park last year as “untenable.”
“People [in the community] were not going to the park spaces,” Dietrick said. “The types of things we were receiving complaints about were over drug and alcohol abuse and the inevitable consequences of those things. … We were seeing extreme vandalism at a great cost to the entire community. We were seeing illegal activities and pretty scary activities happening in our bathrooms that made them, in effect, unusable. We were seeing an escalation in physical and verbal assaults.”
The council voted 3-2 to pass the ordinance’s second reading—with Councilmembers Andy Pease and Michelle Shoresman dissenting. Pease, who also opposed the ordinance last year, said she took issue with it targeting tents.
“Use of a tent in and of itself is not a problem. … By banning them outright, I think we are confusing the issues,” Pease said. “And I think some people who aren’t able to have a place to sleep at night would like to be able to sleep with some of their possessions inside in a safe environment.”
But the council majority, citing an outpouring of public concern about tents and their impacts on parks, said that the ordinance was necessary.
“Unfortunately, there were a couple of comments I received about some very unsafe behavior that was happening in tents in the park, some very violent behavior, and also some drug behavior,” Mayor Erica Stewart said. “I think there’s an aspect of visibility as to why this rule ever existed in the first place. We can’t keep individuals inside the tent and outside the tent safe if we don’t have these rules.” Δ