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Nonprofit moves forward with providing warming shelter for Atascadero homeless 

The winter months are a time for permanent and temporary warming shelters around SLO County to open their doors to individuals, couples, and families who are experiencing homelessness.

In Atascadero, things are no different. There are two different shelters that assist the homeless, the El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO) shelter and Transitional Food and Shelter.

When Transitional was going to lose its warming shelter location from Jan. 22 through April 15, 2019, the nonprofit started looking for a facility that could work in its stead. Last November, the organization proposed using the Atascadero armory as a temporary warming shelter, but a lack of funding, its close proximity to schools, and the short time frame caused the City Council to deny the request.

The issue sparked a conversation about what services are provided to the homeless and who's responsible for finding solutions to gaps in those services.

ECHO is a program-based shelter that offers the homeless a bed for the night and a plan to get the individual in their own home within 90 days. It operates out of a 50-bed facility that Wendy Lewis, president of ECHO, said becomes a client's temporary home.

"It's different from other shelters in the sense that you don't pack up your things and have to leave in the morning," Lewis said.

She said within the first five days of a client's stay, they are connected with a case manager to identify their needs.

"They'll work with, their case manager on a case plan, and it's really special because this person is the client's partner the whole way," she said.

Case managers assist in employment counseling, transportation, clothing, and other resources. ECHO has a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol and substance abuse, so there's a group of people that the organization is unable to help.

Transitional Food and Shelter fills that gap. It provides similar services to its clients—including those who have alcohol-and substance-abuse issues. Orlando Gallegos, president of Transitional, said the organization provides meals, showers, and shelter to those who might not be ready for a 90-day plan and may need a bed and medical assistance first.

The other difference between the two is that Transitional doesn't have a permanent location. It works with churches in the area that lend their halls. Every evening, cots get set up and they're packed up in the morning.

Gallegos said the organization helps anywhere between 20 to 60 homeless individuals each night. Last year, St. Williams Church hosted the warming shelter, but it notified the organization that it would no longer be able to accommodate the shelter after Jan. 21, 2019. That's when Transitional Food and Shelter proposed using the Atascadero armory as a temporary site for a shelter.

After the City Council denied the project, Gallegos said the community stepped up to help the organization's efforts by donating meals and calling to ask how they can help. Dove Creek Church contacted Transitional to become a hosting site from Jan. 21 to April.

Gallegos said he feels positive about the new City Council members, which has helped connect him with other organizations and cities to make Transitions' efforts possible, but he still believes that the city of Atascadero needs to find a permanent solution.

"We all recognize cities are cash strapped. In this case, [the city] simply denied that the problems are theirs along with the rest of the community," he said.

At a Dec. 11 City Council meeting, community members echoed that sentiment during public comment. Resident Jim Carlyle said he's seen homeless individuals wandering the neighborhoods in the evenings, especially near wooded areas and creek beds.

"Furthermore, if safety of the community is your concern, which I hope it is, then consider what happens to the homeless who are left without a warm place," Carlyle said.

Atascadero Mayor Heather Moreno told New Times that the cost of finding a permanent solution for a homeless shelter couldn't just fall on the city, as it didn't know the cost.

"We did not have an estimate of the cost of the project, and that was part of the issue, along with the short time frame that wouldn't lend us time to do a cost analysis," Moreno said.

She said that the homeless issue isn't the only significant need in Atascadero as the city is continually looking into the needs of its fire station and police department. Although it was a difficult decision, the mayor stands behind denial of the project.

"Overall, with all of the responses that I have received outside of council meetings through emails and just being in the community—taking the entire community into account—I think we are moving forward with the best possible solution," she said. Δ

Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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