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A welcome bit of warmth for the county homeless

Reginia Orton, right, and her daughter Marlena use the facilities at The Prado Day Center on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. The center opens a warming station in this common area for especially cold or wet nights.
Photo by Joe Johnston  12-24-09
Reginia Orton, right, and her daughter Marlena use the facilities at The Prado Day Center on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. The center opens a warming station in this common area for especially cold or wet nights. Photo by Joe Johnston 12-24-09 jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Weather patterns this December are a mixed blessing. Although San Luis Obispo County is receiving much needed rain, the precipitation and near-freezing overnight temperatures are hitting the chronically homeless with a succession of cruel blows.

There is, however, a measure of comfort for those who camp under bridges or next to creeks, often with no more protection from the elements than a tarp on the ground and a sleeping bag filled with paper. The Prado Day Center has opened its doors as an overnight warming station.

Dee Torres, director of homeless services for Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County (formerly the EOC), says the center on Prado Road is averaging 35 people a night.

“They’re mostly single men, but we’ve had a few women and couples. In addition to the people who are staying inside, there are up to 20 more who opt to sleep in their cars in the parking lot, often because they have an animal that they didn’t want to leave alone.”

The San Luis Obispo City Council approved opening the day center as an overnight facility a year ago. Although accommodations are sparse — there are no beds and people sleep in chairs or sleeping bags in what’s likened to “airport-style” comfort — being out of the elements is a godsend to those using the facility.

“We found the clientele very appreciative to have a warm, dry, safe place to stay,” Torres said, “which is the main reason why things are going so well with no unpleasant incidents and not having to turn anyone away.”

That isn’t the case at the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter on Orcutt Road. Torres said the 40-bed facility is seeing a 15 percent year-over-year increase in those they have to turn away each night. The shelter is also seeing a 36 percent year-over-year increase in those seeking a nightly hot meal.

Prado Day Center’s lunch program is also being taxed by serving 18 percent more meals this year than last.

“We definitely are seeing an increase in not only total numbers but in the desperation and difficult situations that people are experiencing,” Torres said.

“With the current state of the economy, jobs are scarce and affordable housing is very limited. Clients are staying in the shelter longer, and when you couple this with the increase in new clients trying to access services, you have our very limited resources being stretched to every conceivable limitation.”

The Maxine Lewis shelter and Prado Day Center receive some city and county funding, but fundraising is relied upon to fill the gap between public dollars and demand. That gap is between $125,000 and $160,000 for Prado Day Center.

“We raise money with the support of the Friends of the Prado Day Center fundraising board,” Torres said. But that board is facing its own challenges.

“Board members themselves are having to work harder to keep afloat in their personal lives, which makes volunteer fundraising challenging,” she said.

“The yearly deficit is very similar for the Maxine Lewis shelter. We have to raise between $160,000 to $180,000 a year from the private sector.”

Dave Smiley, a board member of Friends of the Prado Day Center, said that the community has rallied in response to the center taking in folks who are out in the cold.

From volunteers stepping up to oversee the overnight facility to donations of blankets and clothing for those in need, it has been “beyond belief.”

Added Torres: “I don’t think anyone thinks it’s OK for any reason for people to have to suffer outdoors in this kind of weather.”

How to donate

Though blankets and clothing are useful, cash is even more critical to support the staff and keep the lights and heat on at the Prado Day Center. For those seeking a year-end tax deduction, call Dee Torres at 786-0617 for information about donations. For information on donating to the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter, call 781-3993.

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