With winter a few weeks away, Atascadero’s warming shelter is losing its location and won’t be moving to its preferred alternative after city leaders nixed a plan to use the National Guard Armory downtown.
The Atascadero Warming Center — which currently operates out of St. William’s Catholic Church on Santa Lucia Road — will lose its space in January, as the church can no longer accommodate the shelter.
The El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO) on Atascadero Avenue provides some shelter space and homeless services, but the warming center is open to people who need a place to sleep but may not fit into the nonprofit’s transitional model.
To continue providing warming center services during the winter, Transitional Food and Shelter (TFS) — the nonprofit that helped operate the shelter last year — suggested making use of the city’s National Guard Armory facility on Olmeda Avenue.
TFS went before the City Council on Tuesday to propose using the Armory from Jan. 22 to April 15, likely from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. the following day.
To alleviate concerns about homeless individuals loitering near the facility, TFS planned to bus clients in from specified locations in the city. The nonprofit would also pay for cleaning and laundry services.
TFS is not able to enter into an agreement with the National Guard — the city would need to serve as a go-between to secure the facility. The organization hopes to establish a permanent shelter in the future and would need the space only during 2019.
Orlando Gallegos, executive director of TFS, said the organization proposed the Armory because no other locations have been offered as a replacement for the church.
“We came to the Armory as somewhat of a last choice,” Gallegos said at the meeting.
But city leaders and community members expressed concern about the location of the Armory, which is across the street from the Atascadero Fine Arts Academy and a block away from Atascadero Middle School and the Colony Park Community Center.
Clients would likely not receive services while schools are in session, and ECHO is already located just down the road from Atascadero High School. Even so, student safety was repeatedly discussed as a major concern.
Several members of the Atascadero Unified School District board of trustees spoke at the meeting or wrote letters advising against using the Armory as a shelter.
Although they said the board hasn’t taken an official stance on the matter, they expressed their own concerns about keeping students safe.
Mary Kay Mills, school board president, said the area around the Armory is a centralized hub for schools and student facilities and worried about the impact of the homeless population on the downtown area.
“I don’t feel it’s an appropriate location,” she said.
City Council members also asked questions about no-barrier and low-barrier shelters, which serve clients with few requirements related to sobriety and employment.
Gallegos said the warming shelter has had few problems with intoxicated individuals and had to turn away only one person due to such issues last year.
Laurel Weir, San Luis Obispo County homeless services coordinator, said such shelters are especially important for individuals in crisis who have nowhere else to go in inclement weather.
“They exist to ensure people don’t die,” she said at the meeting.
Even so, council members said they felt the plan was rushed and had unresolved concerns about the shelter location and how much funding the city would be required to provide.
The city would likely be on the hook for at least $30,000 in National Guard fees, in addition to the cost of security and potential building upgrades.
“We don’t have a lot of details as to what would be required of the city in terms of costs,” Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi said. “I have a lot of question marks in my head.”
Councilman Charles Bourbeau was on the fence about his position, but agreed the city doesn’t have enough information to make the shelter happen on a quick timeline.
“There are too many unanswered questions,” he said.
Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to reject a shelter at the Armory, although members floated the idea of an ad hoc committee to discuss the need for such a facility.
Moving forward, Gallegos said TFS would gauge the reaction to the city’s rejection of the proposal and try to find a way to move forward.
“We’ve looked at a lot of alternatives, and we’re going to continue to do that,” he said.