Atascadero shelter may get legal exemptions, regulation

ECHO, or the El Camino Homeless Organization, the North County’s only homeless shelter, is in consideration to be the city’s official shelter.
ECHO, or the El Camino Homeless Organization, the North County’s only homeless shelter, is in consideration to be the city’s official shelter. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The El Camino Homeless Organization shelter in Atascadero could soon become the city’s official shelter.

According to California Senate Bill 2, all cities must have a homeless shelter site or designate an area for one, which can operate without the standard conditional use permits. This shelter is then subject to some regulation by the city, such as maximum occupancy and duration of stay.

During a workshop on the topic at an Atascadero Planning Commission meeting Tuesday, the commission seemed to be in favor of naming the ECHO site, located at Atascadero First Baptist Church, as the city’s one emergency shelter, rather than continuing to look for another site.

“I think we should leave well enough alone,” commission Chairman Chuck Ward said. “We have one site, and it’s a good site.”

This adoption would mean ECHO, which closed escrow Tuesday on the former church building, would become the city’s shelter, and could receive some administrative and planning support from the city.

It would also mean stricter regulations for the shelter, something ECHO Executive Director Bill Watt said would fit in with the current direction ECHO is moving in.

“We’ve gone through an intensive process over the last nine months to really be clear about what we want ECHO to be, and what we’ve found is that what we want it to be is not a place for people to hang out … but as a foundation for them to have growth,” Watt said. “I’m hoping that with SB 2, we’ll be able to continue that.”

The debate itself drew approximately 20 audience members, nearly a dozen of them ECHO volunteers and supporters, speaking on the merits of making the ECHO building the SB 2 site as well.

Among the speakers were three residents who own homes near the shelter. They spoke out against ECHO, citing safety issues because of the increased number of homeless people in the area.

“ECHO has a big, long list of rules, and I’ve seen every one of them broken,” said homeowner Jay Decou, whose property shares a fence with the shelter. “I’ve seen urination, defecation and fornication through my fence.”

Decou said the area is not the appropriate place for a shelter, largely because of its location between two schools: North County Christian and Atascadero High School.

Cmdr. Joe Allen, of the Atascadero Police Department, disagreed, saying the department was seeing increased homeless activity throughout the entire city, not just that one area.

One of Decou’s complaints did draw commission attention, though: several commissioners asked for a more secure fence to be built along the shelter’s perimeter to help protect homeowners’ backyards and properties from any negative activities such as defecation and drug use by the shelter’s occupants.

Despite the safety issues, the overwhelming perception of the shelter among the commissioners and the audience was positive. Several commissioners recounted times spent volunteering at ECHO, and all said they had good experiences.

Ward ended the segment by thanking all of those assembled, saying they were “truly an asset to the community.”

The issue will now be examined by staff, and then an official recommendation will be voted on in an upcoming meeting.

The next Planning Commission meeting is set for 7 p.m. April 2 at City Hall.