Council approves ECHO changes

Signage for the ECHO shelter on Atascadero Avenue. (Photo by Camas Frank)

ATASCADERO    Atascadero Mayor Heather Moreno noted that “we have to be fair,” about receiving comments from both sides when opening public forum on the proposed expansion of the El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO)’s proposed expansion plans during the regular City Council meeting on Aug. 13. Only one person got up to speak against the idea of expanding ECHO’s shelter service to a 24-hour operation. A former resident, the speaker grew emotional at the fear that the structure that helped her overcome homelessness would be lost in the change.

After approval by the City’s Planning Commission the previous week, the mood at Council was that the approval was a foregone conclusion. Community Development Director Phil Dunsmore even mentioned the option to reject the proposal at Council as an afterthought in summing up his report,  after all of the work that staff and volunteers at the nonprofit had put in.

Changes to the special zoning plan overlay and use permit the group worked out with the City, and which was approved 5-0 after a round of congratulations and clapping in the Council Chamber, will allow for 10 more beds, extended meal service and on-site programming through the day at the facility on Atascadero Avenue.

ECHO Executive Director Wendy Lewis noted that there were community-based partners ready to offer service programs, “waiting in the wings,” for the time and space to become available.

The only point in the back and forth with staff which required clarification was in how many required outreach meetings the group would need to old with neighbors.

The Planning Commission had recommended two per year, but Dunsmore noted that would be a substantive change from the one meeting in the language advertised for review. Lewis added that many of ECHO’s neighbors who might come to such meetings were in possession of her personal cell phone number and that she doesn’t hear from them often, although they’re welcome to call.

“We’ve had outreach meetings in the past with more board members than attendees,” she said.

Eric Gobler, ECHO Board President told the Council that many nonprofit and city staff hours had gone into getting ready for this step and, “We're fully ready to begin after tonight.”

Minor changes to allow program expansion included tweaking the ratio of staff to clients under ECHO’s agreement with the City to 1-30, and revising language around the number of special events allowed at the site, so long as they're consistent with the service goals.

Mayor Moreno noted she believed Atascadero set an example for San Luis Obispo County with the community’s handling of the shelter.

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