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I rejoice in the rain, but not everyone has the luxury to appreciate the much-needed wet weather. I'm thinking again of our homeless citizens, who may have nothing more than a sheet or overpass to keep them dry.

I still see the young woman I met last year camped out near the creek. She spoke to me from beneath a tarp strung about 3 feet above the ground. She was three months pregnant. Where are she and her baby now? Are they dry? Safe?

Last spring, 40 Prado had not yet opened. With the image of this woman in mind, I decided to take a look at the new facility and see how it is helping alleviate homelessness in San Luis Obispo.

Mychael Castillo, homeless services director at 40 Prado, eagerly showed me around. Wow. I had read about it but seeing the facility in person was a revelation. Especially compared to the inadequate old spaces at the Maxine Lewis Shelter and Prado Day Center, where clients had to walk across town to take advantage of day and night services, 40 Prado is transformative.

"We have 122 beds, including 56 in the men's dorm, 34 for families and 34 for women," Castillo said. "We convert the cafeteria into a warming center when the temperatures drop, and we prioritize beds for women and families fleeing domestic violence."

Every corner in the facility was spick and span. Beds made, corners smoothed tight; neatly packed container boxes and lockers held clients' personal belongings.

"If your stuff is all you've got, you can appreciate the anxiety you might have about security," Castillo said.

The center has 14 animal kennels, 50 bike spaces, 86 car spots, including spaces for overnight parking for individuals living in their cars. The building boasts a commercial kitchen that serves three meals a day (breakfast by Head Start and lunch by People's Kitchen), and a commercial laundry room where clients can wash their clothes for free. Clients can meet with a case worker in the general-purpose room and look for a job in the computer room.

"We serve 17 to 20 children per day in the children's room," Castillo said. "It's a quiet space for families and a place for Head Start, which runs a day literacy program for parents and children—it's a great way to advance adult literacy by helping clients read to their kids."

One of the things that struck me about 40 Prado was how calm, peaceful, and purposeful it was. It had the low hum of clients talking together at the tables, patiently waiting outside for a bed assignment. This is a place, I thought, where people can find dignity and heal.

Health services, too, are offered at 40 Prado. I spoke with Caitlin May, a physician's assistant with Community Health Centers, who sees patients on-site several days a week.

"Because services are co-located, we can bridge the needs of clients, like the SLO-HUB Project, which provides dual diagnosis for mental health and substance abuse disorders," she said. "Plus, we have eight to 10 beds here for recuperative care, when patients have been released from the hospital and they need help managing post-release care. Can you imagine getting released from an emergency room with an I.V. and going to sleep on the streets?"

May said that 40 Prado represents the "first real step" in delivering model health care.

"I get to know my patients here," May said. "We can't heal everyone because it's very difficult to resolve layers of social problems, but I've celebrated the success of clients who were disasters two years ago, and now they are clean, in housing, and have friends."

Castillo, too, calls 40 Prado "a start": "We deliver services, not just shelter. Is it enough? No. On any given night there are 1,200 to 2,500 unsheltered homeless in San Luis Obispo; we have 122 beds. Not near enough."

I asked Castillo what's needed aside from increased capacity.

"Resources," he responded. "We need service case managers. We have one. We need retention case managers to follow individuals as they transition into housing. We need more permanent, supportive housing, like the 60Now units.

"We need to offer sobering and detox services. We need outreach. The Community Action Team includes Officer T. Koznek and a social worker, John Klevins. Two of them to cruise all the corners and creek beds of SLO. It's no secret that some homeless individuals are scared and resistant to services—we need to wear them down with outreach and opportunity.

"San Luis Obispo has taken great strides in building a compassionate care and comprehensive service facility. We should be proud of what we've accomplished, but we'll never be done because homelessness is a chronic condition."

Providers like Castillo, Klevins, May, and others offer clear-eyed perspectives on the issue. They ask that we, the community, listen and learn the facts.

"I'll lead tours around 40 Prado myself," Castillo said. "Many of our clients are high functioning but down on their luck. I know. I was able to put myself through college because of Section 8 low-income housing."

I was humbled that Castillo shared his story. He benefitted from receiving help, yes, but how lucky are we in San Luis Obispo to have his help and expertise?

Let's keep homelessness—and affordable housing—a priority. We'll all benefit. Δ

Amy Hewes is actively involved in grassroots political action. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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