For Makaila Currell and Carey Vasquez, getting away from the North County heat isn’t as easy as flipping on a fan or an air conditioner.
The Atascadero couple must dodge police just to find a cool spot for a couple of hours. Sometimes, the heat makes them and their friends sick.
“Just because we’re homeless, doesn’t mean we deserve to get run off,” Currell said, sitting in Atascadero’s Sunken Gardens on a 108-degree day.
Currell, 24, and Vasquez, 34, are among the North County’s already underserved homeless population, which struggles to find places to get out of the heat during the summer — especially as thermometers in the region have climbed to dangerous temperatures.
Extreme heat is particularly challenging for homeless residents in this area, which has few support services and only one shelter — the El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO) in Atascadero.
Advocates said most homeless individuals try to stay out of sight and — like Currell and Vasquez — find cool spaces, although police constantly force them to leave public areas.
“They’re underserved all year round, but particularly during extreme weather,” said Gail McNichols, a board member for Paso Cares, a nonprofit that cares for Paso Robles’ homeless population.
An underserved region
The North County is home to about 253 homeless individuals, or about 20 percent of San Luis Obispo County’s overall population, according to the 2017 point-in-time count — a census conducted every two years toward the end of January.
However, due to the abundance of rain the area received during early 2017, fewer people were likely out on the streets during the last count, and the North County population was especially undercounted.
Most of the county’s homeless services are centered in San Luis Obispo, where a new $5.4 million shelter is being constructed on Prado Road.
The North County has very few resources, especially for an area that’s prone to extreme heat.
Paso Robles has no homeless shelter or shower facility, although the city designates the library and senior center as cooling shelters on very hot days.
Paso Cares volunteers also provide meals and pass out water in Downtown City Park during the afternoon.
The group typically hosts a nightly dinner on a vacant piece of city land near Riverside Avenue and 24th Street, McNichols said. During the California Mid-State Fair in July, volunteers instead hand out sack lunches in the morning at Robins Field Park and distribute additional water later in the day.
“Most of our homeless are really kind of hunkered down right now because of the heat,” McNichols said.
Homeless services in Atascadero
ECHO, located on Atascadero Avenue, provides showers starting at 4:30 p.m. and nightly dinners at 5 p.m. The shelter’s beds are available through a transitional program that helps homeless individuals find housing and get back on their feet.
ECHO is working toward extending its hours to provide a place for people to go during the day, said Wendy Lewis, the organization’s CEO.
In the meantime, Atascadero doesn’t have any designated cooling shelters, although the library is available for those seeking a respite from the heat, said Casey Bryson, the city’s fire chief.
Tara Kennon, communications coordinator for the county Public Health Department, said the agency has been checking on heat-related emergency medical needs, but hasn’t seen an increase so far.
“North County really is lacking a place for people who are homeless to get out of the heat,” Lewis said.
Trying to beat the heat
On Wednesday afternoon, Currell, and Vasquez, her fiance, took shelter under a tree, just across the park from the Atascadero farmers market. Rick Hurd, 60, sat nearby, taking in the scene.
The temperature made the area feel oven-like, although the shade and a fountain in the middle of the park provided some relief from the heat.
Vasquez took drags from a vape pen as Currell talked, explaining that few places are welcoming to them.
“It’s like, where do you want us all to go?” she asked.
Vasquez is a local, while Currell said she came to California from Maine in search of a new start. The two are always on the go, trying to find places to stay.
“We move around a lot, me and my dude,” she said. “We don’t sit still much.”
Currell said the heat sometimes causes people to pass out, and she’s even known individuals who had to be hospitalized.
“Where’s the proof you actually care about the poor and needy in this community?” Vasquez asked.