SLO County mayors want to convert Paso youth camp to homeless center

The parking lot at the now-closed California Youth Authority facility in Paso Robles used to bustle with activity but now stands virtually empty near the main entry, seen here in a 2012 photo. The mothballed facility waits for its next assignment.
The parking lot at the now-closed California Youth Authority facility in Paso Robles used to bustle with activity but now stands virtually empty near the main entry, seen here in a 2012 photo. The mothballed facility waits for its next assignment. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

All seven of San Luis Obispo County’s mayors are in favor of converting the former California Youth Authority center near Paso Robles into a homeless transition center, and their proposal has received tentative support from the county’s two state legislators.

However, nothing seems to have been done to further the idea in the month since the mayors sent a letter with the proposal to Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, and state Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel.

The letter to Achadjian and Monning was spearheaded by Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin and inquired what plans, if any, the state has for the empty facility, and whether the state would consider repurposing it into what Martin calls a “Beyond Homelessness Campus.” The letter the mayors signed April 8 said more needs to be done to address homelessness and asked if the legislators would be interested in exploring the idea of converting the CYA camp.

“For some time now, people have been asking about the facility and what can be done with it,” Martin said. “I thought now is the time to get some information.”

Martin said the mayors have not heard back.

On Thursday, Achadjian and Monning were both traveling but told The Tribune in emails that they had received the letter.

Achadjian said he is committed to working with local governments to address the homeless problem and is willing to consider converting the Paso Robles camp to a homeless facility but did not commit further.

“I am committed to finding a solution, whether it is at the California Youth Facility or another location,” he said. “Exploring all avenues is necessary.”

Achadjian went on to say that he has introduced a bill that would allow Atascadero or San Luis Obispo County to use the Atascadero Armory as a warming shelter without the state’s prior approval.

“The bill would allow the city or county to take rapid action and provide relief for the many homeless that continue to go unsheltered during times of extreme weather,” he said.

Monning said the CYA camp, which he refers to as the Estrella Correctional Facility, is listed as excess property available for state use. State officials would first explore all reuse options for the property, and if it is deemed to be surplus, Paso Robles and the county would be notified and could move forward in acquiring the property for use as a Beyond Homelessness Campus.

“I commend the community for having the vision to utilize the former Estrella Correctional Facility as a multifaceted homeless campus and know that the planning being done now will pay off should the state deem the property to be surplus and available to local agencies,” he said.

The Paso Robles CYA facility on Airport Road shut down July 31, 2008, and has remained unused since. The facility sits on 160 acres and has 40 buildings, including a medical facility, classrooms and a food-service area.

The facility costs the state about $730,000 a year in maintenance and other costs to preserve as much of the infrastructure as possible, said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“We cannot help but wonder if there is not a better use for this property; a use that would tear down the chain link fence and razor wire and create a ‘Beyond Homelessness Campus,’ ” the mayors’ letter stated.

The facility Martin envisions would be similar to the El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO) facility in Atascadero, a 50-bed transitional shelter that helps homeless families and individuals find permanent housing. It would provide counseling, education and training for people who are homeless because of an economic setback or are suffering from physical and mental problems, Martin said.

In the letter to the legislators, the mayors acknowledged that there are still many unanswered questions and problems to be overcome before the facility could be repurposed. These include cost, programming, staffing and maintenance.

“Before these obstacles can be identified fully and addressed, we must know the state’s intent regarding the disposition of this property,” the letter stated.

This is not the first time an idea for repurposing the former juvenile facility has been proposed. In 2013, the county proposed converting it into a multicounty 200-bed regional jail.

However, that idea was scrapped because of the expense of upgrading the facility for that purpose. Sheriff Ian Parkinson estimated that it would cost about $25 million annually to operate the facility as a regional jail.

The state took over the property from the U.S. Army in 1947 and converted it to the El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility. It housed as many as 1,000 youths.

It was closed in 2008 when the state shifted to a policy of housing youths in the counties where they live rather than state-run facilities. The Corrections Department does not have an estimate of how long it will take to respond to the mayors’ inquiry, Sessa said.

Paso Robles and other cities in the county have made the issue of homelessness a high priority. In March, Paso Robles spent $41,300 to remove some 40 homeless individuals who were camped out in the Salinas riverbed in advance of an anticipated powerful winter storm.

The city also removed 20 tons of trash and debris from the riverbed. On April 5, the City Council voted to form a North County Homeless Coalition to promote potential long-term solutions to homelessness.