With heavy rains and low overnight temperatures now frequently in the forecast, warming centers have opened their doors to some of the homeless individuals in San Luis Obispo County.
But the centers, which offer dry overnight shelter, can collectively accommodate only a small fraction of the region’s homeless population — about 100 out of the estimated 1,515 homeless people living in the county.
With such limited accommodations during what is expected to be a drenching El Niño winter, some local residents have been advocating that local city councils and county supervisors declare a shelter crisis in their communities so they can more easily open public buildings as temporary shelters.
So far, no such declarations have been issued.
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“It’s so cold now, and the people are suffering for nothing,” said Becky Jorgeson, who founded Hope’s Village of SLO with the goal of creating a self-sustaining community of tiny homes.
She and several other county residents have asked the San Luis Obispo City Council to declare a shelter crisis. Doing so would make it easier to open a public building, according to state law, and give the city immunity from liability from ordinary negligence in providing a temporary shelter.
Please don’t pass this on to anyone else. They can’t do it. You can do this.
Homeless advocate Martin Meltz, asking the SLO council to declare a shelter crisis
The Los Angeles City Council has declared a shelter crisis for many years so the city can open public buildings as temporary shelters and allow people to sleep inside vehicles in designated lots, the Los Angeles Times reported in November.
“If L.A. can do it with 26,000 (homeless people), we can do it with 2,000,” Jorgeson said.
The San Luis Obispo City Council briefly discussed overnight warming centers and the idea of a shelter crisis declaration at its meeting Tuesday in response to public comments, but did not ask for the issue to be placed on a future agenda for any action.
Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin said Thursday that he’s raised the question with city staff about what declaring a shelter crisis would entail, but the issue has not been placed on a council agenda.
“I am begging you to pull out all the stops to bring everyone who doesn’t want to live outside in the dirt indoors and in a structure that makes sense for them,” homeless advocate Dee Torres, a volunteer with SLO Housing Connection, wrote in an email to the San Luis Obispo council. “(Dan) DeVaul’s been begging to help, Becky (Jorgeson), churches, campgrounds, motel vouchers, vacant or barely used county buildings, etc., etc. … There is not one solution.”
Community development director Michael Codron told the council that the city staff did not have the training needed to provide supervision and services if the city were to open City Hall or the Ludwick Community Center, for example, as an emergency shelter.
Also, he said, more than 40 people haven’t stayed at the Prado Day Center’s overnight warming station over on any given night since it opened in 2010, and only had 17 stayed there Monday night.
“So from that standpoint, to the question of a shelter crisis emergency, there isn’t the sense at this point that there’s the lack of shelter space,” Codron said. “There are a number of overflow sites in the community — in addition to the day center — that churches make available.”
People interested in helping should volunteer with Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County to staff the warming center, he suggested.
But Councilman Dan Carpenter wondered why more people might not use the overnight shelter, and whether CAPSLO maintains the same criteria for the warming center that it does for the day center or Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter.
In response to Tribune questions, CAPSLO deputy director Grace McIntosh said: “While we are a sobriety-based program, during the warming center we are taking all clients on a case-by-case basis. Our primary consideration is that of safety of clients, volunteers and staff.”
“Even though we are now ‘sobriety-based,’ we have always been ‘behavior-based,’ which essentially means that if someone exhibits behavior that causes staff concern, they might be asked to submit to a test for alcohol,” McIntosh added. “We added drug testing in 2014 due to the high numbers of heroin and meth use.”
She said that without more volunteers or staff, it would be very difficult to open the Prado warming center for additional nights.
“We struggled to find enough volunteers to open this station this week, and all staff are on overtime,” she said.
But some other factors might keep people from going to an emergency shelter, according to homeless services providers in the county: Some warming centers don’t have much storage space for personal belongings, don’t allow pets, or may not be convenient for homeless to access.
“Did they not come last year because it wasn’t cold or wet enough? Were we too far? Or did they not want to leave their dogs or their stuff?” asked Janna Nichols, executive director of the 5Cities Homeless Coalition.
The organization opens a warming center in the conference room of the county social services building in Arroyo Grande that can accommodate about 20 people, Nichols said. Seven stayed there Tuesday night; 17 were there Thursday.
I think we need to provide a warming center, but I haven’t seen the traffic telling me we have a high interest from the homeless population.
Janna Nichols, executive director, 5Cities Homeless Coalition
Anyone can attend, whether or not they’re clean or sober, as long as they behave themselves, Nichols said.
“The purpose of this is very specifically to get people out of the elements.”
Mark Nellesen, who has organized warming centers in Atascadero for six years, said they serve as overflow cold-weather shelters for people who can’t get into ECHO’s (El Camino Homeless Organization) shelter.
“These are the people who don’t get into the homeless shelters. They just want a place to come inside,” he said. “Mainly this program is just to help them get out of the cold, and they don’t want to be told everything that’s wrong with them. They just want to get in a sleeping bag or sleep.”
San Luis Obispo County Administrative Officer Dan Buckshi said he expects the county, City of San Luis Obispo and CAPSLO to meet in the next week to discuss whether the Prado warming station could be open more nights and whether there are enough volunteers to support doing so.
In addition, he said, county officials are working with the Homeless Services Oversight Council of San Luis Obispo County, which serves as an advisory board to county supervisors, to discuss expanding warming centers this winter — either at new locations or expanded space and nights at existing sites.
“At this point, it’s not so much that it’s a facility shortage. It’s a volunteer and operational issue,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been discussing at the county ... how to get the word out to solicit volunteers and how the not-for-profits can get the word out that more help is needed.”
We understand it’s a significant issue this year, and we’re working to address it as quickly as possible.
Dan Buckshi, San Luis Obispo County administrative officer
The supervisors have not discussed a shelter crisis, though a few people have urged them to do so. Pismo Beach resident Martin Meltz, an advocate for the homeless, has spoken at city council meetings in the South County and San Luis Obispo and to county supervisors about what a shelter crisis declaration could allow an agency to do.
“Since the Prado Day Center is the presumptive emergency shelter in SLO ... and since (it) is in the flood pain, I plead with you to act responsibly and either immediately declare a shelter crisis, or authorize the city manager to be able to do so,” he said to the San Luis Obispo council Tuesday, also asking the city manager to make any city facilities or staff available to operate it until other arrangements can be made to run it.
“Please don’t pass this on to anyone else. They can’t do it,” Meltz added. “The shelter staff at Prado is very thin. ... I’m sure you’re aware of how difficult it is to get volunteers.”
Councilman John Ashbaugh, who serves as the council’s representative to the Homeless Services Oversight Council of San Luis Obispo County, said there would also be more discussion about warming centers at the advisory board’s meeting this month.
A shelter crisis declaration, he said, is “something we (the SLO council) can look at a little later if appropriate.”
Warming Centers in San Luis Obispo County
The 5Cities Homeless Coalition opens a warming center at 1086 Grand Ave. in Arroyo Grande when there’s a 50 percent chance of rain on any night and/or the temperature drops to 39 degrees or below. It will be open Friday night. Transportation to the location is being provided by Ride-On Transportation from three sites: the Grover Beach Train Station at 5 p.m., the Pismo Beach Premium Outlets bus stop at 5:05 p.m., and the Arroyo Grande Library (800 W. Branch St.) at 5:15 p.m. In addition to hot meals, sleeping bags and mats will be provided as available. The warming center hotline is 710-4330, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
CAPSLO opens the Prado Day Center at 43 Prado Road in San Luis Obispo as a warming station when there are two consecutive days of rain and/or temperatures drop to 32 degrees. For information, call Grace McIntosh at 291-1008 or email@example.com.
Paso Cares will host warming centers on days with a 50 percent or higher chance of rain and/or when temperatures drop to 35 degrees or lower. Center locations are: Mondays and Wednesdays at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Paso Robles; Tuesdays and Thursdays at Life Community Church in Templeton; Fridays at Highlands Church in Paso Robles. Participants are pre-screened and first attend dinner at People’s Kitchen at 1937 Riverside Ave. in Paso Robles before being bused to the overnight location. The shelter can accommodate 12 and was full Monday and Tuesday nights, board President Cherie Michaelson said. The organization will hold a training session for volunteers from 9 to 10 a.m. Saturday at Saint Rose Catholic Church, 820 Creston Road in Paso Robles. For information, call 712-7067 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Atascadero, self-employed plumber Mark Nellesen has organized warming centers at Atascadero First Assembly of God Church, 5545 Ardilla Ave., from 6 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; and on Sundays from 6 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. at Atascadero Bible Church, 6225 Atascadero Mall. No food is provided. The program has sleeping bags for about 20 to 22 people, and more 10-degree sleeping bags are needed. Call Nellesen at 391-4008.