Two weeks ago, I made the motion to deny a warming shelter for Atascadero’s homeless; a unanimous vote followed to turn it down.
Accusations followed, stating “How could Atascadero’s City Council be so heartless? Don’t you know it gets cold here at night?”
The proponents wanted to put the shelter in Atascadero’s Armory, located dead-center in the middle of an area heavily used by children and designated for family-oriented community activities. The Fine Arts Academy (elementary school) is right across the street; the junior high is next door; the youth center, skate park, playing fields and Joy Playground are behind it.
Unlike many armories in other cities that are in industrial areas, airports and on the outskirts of towns, our armory is surrounded by schools. Further, it is located in a city-designated Drug Free Zone, which is problematic because the shelter would be “low barrier,” allowing anyone entrance whether sober, on drugs or with other issues.
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Several Atascadero School Board members, representing countless parents and children, spoke out against it for this reason, stating this is an inappropriate location.
Unfortunately, the proponents waited until December to bring the proposal to use the Armory for a warming shelter for higher risk transients starting in January. This left inadequate time for the council and the public to consider alternatives. If this proposal had been made in July perhaps other alternatives might have been explored. The proponents were also unable to answer many questions posed by the City Council regarding operational details for use of the armory, creating uncertainty for the viability of the proposal.
Financial costs to the city would be substantial. The state Military Department required the city to pay $441 per day for use of the Armory; initial costs were to be at least $35,000 in an unbudgeted requirement, not including additional costs for a security guard contract, janitorial services and assumption of responsibility for unspecified repairs to the facility. No cost estimate was provided, but the facility is old and it we know it will be costly, price tag unknown.
Atascadero was among the first communities in the county to address the homeless problem, establishing the El Camino Homeless Shelter (ECHO) more than 30 years ago. This shelter is staffed by volunteers and run on donations. The neighboring communities of Paso Robles, Templeton and Santa Margarita have no shelters, with their homeless population often sent to ECHO. Our churches fill a need, too, with several serving as warming shelters and one providing a soup kitchen. Heartless? Hardly! We are a small city with a small budget, however, and we can’t approve proposals that aren’t budgeted for, aren’t well-planned and that don’t have the maximum public input possible.
On the same night the warming shelter was denied, the City Council approved declaring a Homeless Shelter Emergency in Atascadero. This declaration will allow ECHO and others to apply for state grant money. Finding the right location for a warming shelter and careful planning are part of the process. The public expects elected officials to make decisions that will keep their children safe while using their money wisely. By denying the use of the Armory for a warming shelter, the City Council made the right decision.
Robert Fonzi serves on the Atascadero City Council; this Viewpoint represents her opinions — not the entire council’s.