Don’t be a Scrooge, Atascadero; allow a warming shelter at the National Guard Armory

Caltrans clears homeless camps every day. Here’s what they look like inside

California’s homeless crisis is playing out on the state’s highways, where Caltrans is clearing dozens of camps every day. Here's the scene inside a camp near a Berkeley freeway in November 2018.
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California’s homeless crisis is playing out on the state’s highways, where Caltrans is clearing dozens of camps every day. Here's the scene inside a camp near a Berkeley freeway in November 2018.

Say it ain’t so, Atascadero.

A month before Christmas — and during one of the rainiest weeks of the year — your City Council denies a request to allow a warming shelter at the National Guard Armory?

We don’t know what’s more disappointing: The council’s decision, or the comments from some members of the public who urged denial of the application.

As tempting as it may be to nominate the city for Scrooge of the Year award (if such a thing existed), it makes more sense to appeal to the City Council’s better nature and ask it to reconsider. That same request goes out to opponents of the project, who cited reasons that were flimsy at best and mean-spirited and intolerant at worst.

One of the more despicable examples, taken from a letter sent to the City Council: “Why would you subject the members of the National Guard who voluntarily spend their time in service to their country to the filth, unsanitary, and unsafe conditions the ‘homeless’ typically leave behind every place they gather any more than you’d invite them into your own homes.”

Most opponents, though, believe the Armory is inappropriate because it is too close to schools, including the Atascadero Fine Arts Academy and the Atascadero Middle School.

But here’s the thing: Shelter clients would be bused to the Armory in the evening, and bused back in the early morning. From a time standpoint, there would be no overlap between the school’s operating hours and the warming shelter’s.

Even if some students happened to be in the area in the evening or early morning, the Armory is an enclosed facility, with a locked gate.

In other words, homeless people would not be loitering in the schoolyard.

“No one is going to leave (the Armory),” said Orlando Gallegos, executive director of Transitional Food and Shelter (TFS).

The nonprofit has been operating a warming shelter at a church hall in Atascadero, but the church is growing and expanding its own programs and can no longer accommodate the shelter.

TFS would like to continue to operate the program at the Armory, though under state law, the city would have to enter into an agreement with the National Guard.

Gallegos believes the city’s concerns — about liability, for example, and a possible need for upgrades to the facility — could all be satisfactorily addressed, but he’s not pinning all of his hopes on the city.

His group is considering other possibilities as well — including sites outside the city limits — though some of those alternatives aren’t large enough to accommodate the 60-100 clients expected to seek shelter on rainy and cold nights.

The organization is still looking, and would love to hear from anyone who might have a piece of land that could accommodate tents and portable toilets, or a barn.

Kudos to anyone willing to consider making such an offer, but the city of Atascadero should not be let off the hook so easily.

Two new council members — Susan Funk and Heather Newsom — will be sworn in at the next meeting. At the very least, they should have the opportunity to weigh in.

Fortunately, there is still time for that: The warming shelter will be able to operate at St. William’s parish hall through Jan. 21, which gives the city almost two months to get its questions and concerns answered.

Whether it’s at the Armory or some other location, the city of Atascadero absolutely should do whatever it can to provide temporary shelter on cold, wet nights for homeless men and women who, for whatever reason, don’t qualify for or don’t want to go to a permanent shelter, such as ECHO in Atascadero or 40 Prado in San Luis Obispo.

And it’s not just Atascadero; we need a network of warming shelters throughout the county.

Sleeping under a bridge or in a doorway is bad enough in clement weather. Imagine what it’s like when its 30 degrees outside, or when it’s raining and windy.

And consider the toll it takes: A 2017 study, “Mortality among the homeless: Causes and Meteorological Relationships,” found that deaths caused by hypothermia were reported 13 times more frequently in the homeless population than in the general population.

There are many nonprofits and church-based organizations throughout the county — ECHO and TFS are two of them — that do an excellent job caring for homeless residents by providing shelter, food, clothing and compassion.

But they can’t do it alone; it’s time for all local governments to step up and do their part.

We strongly urge the Atascadero City Council to reconsider use of the Armory as a temporary warming shelter.

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