Homeless issues get mixed response

A homeless man gets some rest in San Luis Obispo, circa 2013 (photo by Camas Frank)

Declares crisis but votes no on Armory proposal

ATASCADERO — In some of their last official acts under this composition as a government body, the Atascadero City Council, at their Nov. 27 regular meeting, tackled an issue they’d seldom discussed over the last two-year cycle.

Brought to the forefront by two items demanding urgent action on homelessness, the Council rejected one proposal as untenable but was convinced by the previous three hours of discussion to declare a shelter crisis under their jurisdiction.

The second item a “Declaration of a Shelter Crisis and Authorization of the City of Atascadero’s Participation in the Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP)” was brought up at the Council’s previous meeting as needing to be agendized so that social service providers working inside the City could compete for a slice of $4.8 million in grant funding, primarily toward capital improvement projects, set to be administered by the County in 2019.

At first glance, there was some trepidation on part of the Council’s fiscal hawks as to what unforeseen burdens an unfunded mandate from the California Legislature might impose if the crisis was declared. But research on the part of City Manager Rachel Rickard revealed no existing laws which would place such strings on the money.

Laurel Weir, San Luis Obispo County’s Homeless Services Coordinator with their Department of Social Services, also stood ready to answer Council questions noting that it would be possible for the City to cancel the declaration if that situation changed as well as place a sunset date on the declaration to last through the grant funding cycle. She did add that no other city in the region had done so and that the same item was on the City of San Luis Obispo’s consent calendar that night without debate.

The declaration will allow, most notably in the City, the El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO), to pursue grant funding to renovate their 50-bed shelter, as well as applications to go forward from the nonprofit Transitional Food and Shelter (TFS) to seek a permanent home for its programs.

The unanimous approval of the declaration was a consolation prize of sorts for advocates who turned out on TFS’ behalf for the first item of the night, consideration of using the National Guard Armory downtown near the Printery as a Warming Shelter after they lose their current home in the St. Williams Church on Dec. 22.

With a unanimous vote, and expressing their unanimous displeasure at what they perceived as the duty to do so, the Council chose to deny the request which would have had them enter the City into an agreement with the National Guard to take on the liability and cost of turning the Armory into a temporary shelter with TFS coming in to run their Atascadero Warming Shelter at the site.

Staff created a document with three options and preliminary cost estimates for the Council, the first being to accede, as best they could on short notice, to the request to act by Dec. 22 this year, the second to pursue a plan over several months to explore feasibility in late-2019, or to flatly deny the proposal.

Outgoing Mayor Tom O’Malley had difficulty in eliciting a coherent second on the motion to act after Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi put forward the first motion to deny the request.

Calling on 30 years as a marriage and family therapist, O’Malley noted that the Council, specifically Councilman Charles Bourbeau was thinking the matter through aloud while speaking on the record, a trait shared by others as they weighed hours of emotional argument and sharply worded correspondence against fiscal and institutional realities.

“That’s exactly what I’m doing,” Bourbeau said. “I believe it’s better to have people in a shelter overnight. Are we slamming the door shut with a motion on option three? Can we have some more investigation somehow?”

Councilman Brian Sturtevant, also leaving the Council with O’Malley on Dec. 11, noted he too was against the Armory as a shelter location but sought some more proactive alternative that the Council could take.

As the Council’s liaison with the County’s Homeless Services Oversight Committee, Bourbeau also had the most direct information from the County and service organizations in evaluating the evening’s agenda items.

He shared with Council and the public that a lengthy talk before the meeting with TFS Board President and the “applicant” for the Armory proposal, Orlando Gallegos, as well as calling on his own acquaintances from long service in the National Guard, had provided him additional insight.

While not convinced that the Armory site was workable, he said he felt that the most challenging objections brought by the public and from trustees of the Atascadero Unified School District Board, that a dangerous element would be brought into the neighborhood near several schools was actually mitigated by the terms of the proposal already and was no worse than what the public faces on a daily basis.

With the measure passing to deny the TFS proposal for the Armory, the Council instead agreed to create a committee on homelessness, a first for the City.

With Bourbeau’s term in office extending through 2020, O’Malley noted that he would likely end up serving as one of the committee’s two members with the possibility of Council-inductees Heather Newsom or Susan Funk joining him after their swearing-in at the next meeting.

While he acknowledged that he won’t be there to see the next steps through, Sturtevant added that the evening’s deliberations had been eye-opening, “We as a council have not been focused on this issue. We should be more proactive from here on.”


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