Paso may finally get a homeless shelter — with help from Atascadero and two nonprofits

The North County may get a permanent warming shelter by 2020 — the product of grant funding and teamwork between city leaders and homeless advocates.

Paso Robles, Atascadero and the two nonprofits that serve the cities’ homeless populations — Paso Cares and the El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO) — are coming together to apply for $1.7 million in grant funding from San Luis Obispo County.

The money would come from about $4.8 million in one-time funding the county will receive from the state to help reduce homelessness. The Board of Supervisors will allocate the money following an application period that ends Tuesday.

If approved, it would go toward building a 5,000-square-foot shelter near the Paso Robles Wastewater Treatment Plant, located just northeast of downtown on the banks of the Salinas River, according to Julie Dahlen, the city’s Community Services director.

The shelter would initially hold 36 beds, according an Atascadero staff report. Council members unanimously approved the city’s involvement on Tuesday.

The El Camino Homeless Organization in Atascadero provides homeless services and transitional housing on Santa Lucia Road. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Paso Robles City Council members approved the application at a special meeting Feb. 21, said Jim Cogan, deputy city manager.

The county funding would help get the shelter up and running through May 2021, Dahlen said. Paso Cares, Paso Robles’ all-volunteer homeless services nonprofit, would provide services.

The city would also hire a full-time homeless services coordinator to help run the shelter, Dahlen said.

About $150,000 of the city’s federal Community Development Block Grant funding would also pay for utility hookups for the new shelter, Dahlen said.

The remaining county funds would go to ECHO, which maintains a 50-bed shelter in an old church in Atascadero.

Most of the spaces at ECHO’s shelter are reserved for individuals looking to transition out of homelessness. This leaves a gap for residents who need shelter but are not yet ready to take part in programming.

The organization wants to expand its number of beds, add hours of operation and add additional counseling services to support both ECHO and the new shelter, according to the Atascadero staff report.

“It’s a collaboration,” Dahlen said. “We’ve all been working together to represent our true needs with this grant.”

PR Homeless Camps064.JPG
Detective Eric Azarvand, center, and community services officer Alissa Reina meet with two occupants of a large camp structure in the Salinas riverbed as they and other members of the Paso Robles Police Department make contact with people living in a homeless camp to warn them of an upcoming cleanup in this 2016 file photo. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A desperately needed shelter

About 253 homeless individuals live in the North County — that’s about 20 percent of the county’s total population, according to the 2017 point-in-time count.

The annual census is conducted every two years at the end of January, and the results of the 2019 count have not yet been released.

The county had a very wet winter in 2017, meaning fewer people were likely out on the street during that count. The North County’s homeless population may have been especially undercounted.

Paso Robles currently has no homeless shelter or permanent space for residents to seek shelter during cold North County winters and sweltering hot summers.

Paso Cares, the city’s all volunteer homeless services nonprofit, has been serving nightly dinners outdoors on a vacant piece of city property near Riverside Avenue and 24th Street for about four years, according to Gail McNichols, the group’s president.

The organization also provides laundry services and transports residents to warming centers set up at churches around the city during the winter. But McNichols and others have long pushed city officials to become more involved in caring for the homeless.

“The idea of having a shelter for us to work out of is very, very exciting,” McNichols said in a phone interview. “We will be able to offer shelter to our most at-risk homeless population without having to rely on five local churches to do so.”

The new shelter would provide beds for residents during inclement winter weather and could also serve as a cooling shelter during particularly hot summer days, McNichols said.

It would allow Paso Cares to essentially operate a “one-stop shop.” The organization could bring its dinners inside and also offer showers, in addition to food and laundry, McNichols said.

“It’s huge,” she said. “Paso Cares is so excited about this.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune