The El Camino Homeless Organization is now Atascadero’s official homeless shelter.
The nonprofit agency also will be allowed to continue serving free meals to those in need.
But on Tuesday, the Atascadero City Council didn’t come to those decisions before first hearing from dozens of speakers, including some who complained about the shelter’s meal program, which has been the subject of recent gripes from the neighborhood.
The council was tasked with balancing the wants of roughly 60 people at the meeting who supported ECHO — including some homeless individuals and others wearing yellow “ECHO” stickers — and a handful of residents who said they thought the shelter and its meal program would be better suited for another area.
Among the speakers was Penny Botha.
"I became homeless three months ago,” she told the council. “I was ready to kill myself in the park right out front (of City Hall) until someone told me about ECHO. I went to ECHO and it saved my life."
After nearly three hours of public testimony, the council voted 3-1 with Councilman Bob Kelley dissenting, to allow the meal program to operate under a permitted agreement with the city. Kelley supported an option that would have let the meal program operate with less city oversight. Councilman Brian Sturtevant was absent.
The majority of the council opted to go with more oversight to protect residents and to preserve ECHO’s operations into the future.
“We want to set something that is set and defined and predictable,” Mayor Tom O’Malley said. “If a future council wants something different, then we say ‘Well, that’s too bad … we’ve got an agreement.’ ”
ECHO, the North County’s only homeless shelter, is a nonprofit organization operating since 2001 with hundreds of volunteers to provide 60 to 70 hot meals each evening and warm beds for about 35 people each night.
The shelter is one that countless people who have lost jobs, escaped abuse or simply fallen on hard times have come to count on for more than a decade. While it’s always operated as a shelter, state law recently required cities to declare one site as their official homeless shelter site.
For Atascadero, ECHO, which has recently taken steps to expand to 50 beds, sought to be the city’s official spot for homeless to seek refuge. But while the organization worked with the city on regulations to set up the designation, residents in the shelter’s west-side neighborhood off Atascadero Mall began voicing concerns.
“I support the meal program (but) what they’re running is a hotel and a restaurant — neither of which is zoned for the area,” said Jay DeCou, whose house backs up to part of the property.
Tuesday’s decision also requires that ECHO build a wall to replace a chain-link fence between the shelter site and DeCou’s neighborhood.
Susan Warren, an administrator at North County Connection, a local social service agency, praised ECHO’s work. “I support ECHO in every way possible. It’s one of the links in services we’re trying to create in our county,” she said.
ECHO leaders said after the meeting that although many of its supporters wanted the less restrictive option, they were happy that an official shelter ordinance is now in place.