Over the Hill

ECHO volunteers help homeless

A man in the homeless shelter’s dining room seemed anxious. He repeatedly said he had to use the phone. When that cordless phone was finally available, he sat down with it at the table where I sat. He called a hospital and asked if his wife had been admitted.

That was last week when I visited the El Camino Homeless Organization shelter in Atascadero. They serve dinner from 5 to 6 p.m. A drizzle was falling so the volunteers let the early arrivals wait inside.

Sitting with the man was his son, who attends a middle school in the North County. The man explained he’d taken his wife to Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton that morning because she’d had a severe headache and then developed blurry vision.

At Twin Cities, the doctors detected an aneurism in her brain and sent her by ambulance to a Santa Barbara hospital.

He and his son wanted to visit her. He had a car but no gas money. One of the volunteers told him ECHO would provide that. The shelter is staffed almost entirely by volunteers.

ECHO was founded in 2000 by eight people. They began with a soup kitchen in a store-front church on El Camino Real. Then some churches agreed to provide space for a homeless shelter, with the churches each taking turns hosting it for a month.

Eventually, the First Baptist Church of Atascadero agreed to house it permanently, rent-free, although ECHO does pay upkeep, maintenance and utility costs.

Religious organizations and service clubs take turns providing meals every day. On the evening of my visit, 54 people got hot meals. Ladies from Hope Lutheran Church of Atascadero cooked and served them.

A social worker was also there to help the homeless, and so was the First Baptist Church pastor.

Not all the people who ate also stayed overnight. Some just needed a meal. Also, the shelter has only 31 bunks. It can house about 35 guests if some children sleep two to a bed. If too many people want beds, priority goes to families with children and the frail and elderly.

Overnight guests must present identification. They are checked through the police department and the Megan’s Law Web site sex-offender list.

They must also take a breathalyzer blood-alcohol test. And some are chosen at random for urine tests to detect drug use.

In the morning the guests eat breakfast, help clean up, pack lunches and leave. They may return at 5 p.m.

ECHO’s phone number is 462-3663. You may mail donations to P.O. Box 2077.

Contact Phil Dirkx at phild2008@sbcglobal.net or 238-2372.