ECHO to expand in Atascadero — giving North County its first 24-hour homeless shelter

The El Camino Homeless Organization in Atascadero will expand its capacity and hours, giving the North County its first round-the-clock shelter.

Starting in about a month, the 50-bed transitional and emergency homeless facility — operating out of the old First Baptist Church building on Atascadero Avenue — will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The shelter also plans to add 10 beds, many of which will go to homeless individuals recovering from medical treatment, according to Wendy Lewis, ECHO CEO.

The Atascadero City Council on Tuesday voted 5-0 in favor of the expanded hours and additional capacity.

“This is so needed in our community,” Mayor Heather Moreno said at the meeting. “For Atascadero to continue to step up in this way is huge, and we really are a model for the entire county.”

ECHO’s primary focus is helping clients transition out of homelessness. Individuals and families accepted into the program live at the shelter and access case management and other services to assist them in finding employment and housing.

Right now, those clients must leave the ECHO facility at 9 a.m. and return after 4:30 p.m., when the shelter opens for dinner.

Most individuals who stay at the shelter overnight are enrolled in the transition program, but the nightly meal, showers and laundry service are available to anyone in need.

More shelter space needed

The nonprofit began planning the expansion about a year ago and needed city approval to expand its hours and add more beds.

“The need is definitely increased,” Lewis said. “We’re seeing more people come to our meal program, our shower program.”

San Luis Obispo County’s biannual point-in-time homeless count found 32% more people without a permanent place to live, according to a report released on Aug. 1.

About 478 homeless individuals were living in the North County at the time of the count, with about 173 people in Atascadero.

Seventy-one of those people were unsheltered, meaning they were living on the street, in a vehicle, in an encampment or in an abandoned building. Another 102 were sheltered in an emergency facility or transitional housing.

ECHO’s expansion is made possible by a portion of the $4.8 million in state Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP) funding the county received, Lewis said. The city of Paso Robles — which is in the process of building a warming shelter — applied for and was awarded part of the money in conjunction with ECHO.

The Atascadero nonprofit will use $580,000 to make $350,000 in physical improvements to the building that will allow the installation of new beds, Lewis said.

The remaining money will allow ECHO to add two-and-a-half new employees, including a case manager who will split time between Atascadero and Paso Robles.

Additional funds from a California Emergency Solutions and Housing Program (CESH) grant will help the nonprofit hire an additional employee to do street outreach.

Homeless Heat032
Kevin Ranson, left, and Brian Carchak rest in the shade as they wait for dinner to start outside the ECHO shelter in Atascadero in this July 2018 file photo Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Increased level of service

Now that the shelter can remain open all day, clients will be able to access additional programming, such as tutoring, financial literacy, nutrition classes and more case management.

“Our ask here tonight is to increase our ability to have people go forward faster to free up the beds for those who are waiting,” Lewis said at the council meeting.

Some clients who need to stay in the facility all day — including those who work overnight or are recovering from hospital stays — now have that option, Lewis said.

The shelter will not be open to non-clients looking for a place to beat the heat or stay out of inclement weather, Lewis said.

“Where we’re located now, that probably wouldn’t be viable,” she said.

Once it’s constructed, the Paso Robles shelter would likely be a better facility for individuals in that situation, Lewis said, calling the ECHO expansion “the first step.”

“It just really is going to help us provide an increased level of service,” she said.

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Lindsey Holden writes about housing, North County communities and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. Lindsey is a native Californian raised in the Midwest and earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.