Friday, June 18, 2010

San Luis Obispo Grand jury praises ECHO in review

Posted: Friday, Jun 18th, 2010
BY: Aaron Crutchfield

A new report issued by the San Luis Obispo County grand jury praised the El Camino Homeless Organization and said it should be studied as a model for the rest of the county, while stating cities throughout the county need to be more involved in solving the county’s homeless problem and the county needs a powerful homeless services coordinator.

The report stated that ECHO, an all-volunteer organization, has provided 62,000 bed nights for homeless persons since opening in 2001. ECHO moved from month to month between Atascadero churches before moving into space in the First Baptist Church on Atascadero Mall in 2006 with room for 31 beds. ECHO also funds motel rooms for families when the shelter is full. ECHO has also historically provided supper for 45 people each evening, but recently has been doing it for 60.

In 2008, 639 people volunteered as overnight chaperones for ECHO.

ECHO gets support from local governments and a variety of donors, and through donated labor, the First Baptist Church’s modest fee and in-kind donations from other organizations, ECHO spends about $6 per person per night.

“Because ECHO has a system that works, their ideas and methods should be expanded to other areas within the county,” the Grand Jury said in its report. “[Community Action Partnership of SLO], Five Cities Homeless Coalition and other groups now working with the homeless should meet with the staff of ECHO and be mentored in the areas of recruiting, training and effectively utilizing volunteers.”

The grand jury’s view of homeless services in the rest of the county wasn’t as rosy.

In Paso Robles, which has the second-highest homeless population in the county, there is no shelter the grand jury is aware of.

Meanwhile, in the city of SLO, which has the highest homeless population in the county, CAPSLO runs the Prado Day Center and the Maxine Lewis Homeless Shelter.

The grand jury said the Maxine Lewis Shelter is not large enough to provide beds for all who seek them in SLO and the facility is in poor physical condition. CAPSLO runs an “overflow” shelter program with the Interfaith Coalition to provide beds for homeless women and families at local churches and synagogues.

Local cities and the county have supported an 86-page document titled, “Path to a home: San Luis Obispo Countywide 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness,” published in October 2008, but the grand jury said none of the governmental agencies have actually adopted it because adoption would obligate them to actually implementing the plans objectives.

“Path to Home includes a ‘housing first model’ for helping the homeless,” the grand jury said in its report. “The theory is that the best way to assist the homeless population is to first put the people in stable housing and then provide supportive services to help them remain housed while addressing the problems that led to their homelessness. This approach, we were told, has worked well in large urban areas that have old or empty buildings that can be converted to low cost housing. Whether ‘housing first’ will work as well in SLO County is problematic, because housing here is scarce and expensive.”

The county has proposed a “homeless campus” on South Higuera Street in SLO to combine services at the Prado Day Center and the Maxine Lewis Shelter into one place, making it so the homeless don’t have to travel around the county seeking services.

The grand jury recommends that the county and all incorporated cities should adopt and begin to implement the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, and also that the county and all cities should establish and fund a line item in their budgets specifically supporting services, including more housing, for homeless persons.

The grand jury also wants to see a full-time homeless Services Coordinator with a staff, including a grant writer, to oversee the 10-year plan and monitor funds directed toward helping the homeless.

The grand jury also wants to see the homeless Services Campus built as soon as possible, while the county, South County incorporated cities and nonprofit organizations should pursue joint efforts to build and operate a facility that provides both day services, such as those provided now by the South County People’s Kitchen, and night services which are not currently provided. The grand jury said the South County shelter could look to ECHO as a model.

The grand jury also wants to see a shelter in Paso Robles.

“Unless local governments and private organizations join together and expand available resources, the homeless adults and children of San Luis Obispo County will continue to struggle and far too many, including hundreds of our children, will remain homeless,” the grand jury said in its report.

There were 3,829 homeless people in SLO County in January 2009, according to the report, 1.5 percent of the county population, with 1,372 children or teens under the age of 18 included in that total. The grand jury interviewed 342 homeless adults for its report.

Twenty-five percent of the interviewees slept outdoors (in a tent, under a bush, etc.); 21 percent were in a car, camper or other vehicle; 18 percent were guests of family or friends; 12 percent were in a shelter; about 11 percent were in housing provided by a transitional housing program; and 10 percent spent the night in a motel. The remaining three percent did not respond.

Of the 3,829 homeless (1,372 children) in the county in January 2009, 1,025 (88 children) were in the city of SLO, while 572 (144 children) were in Paso Robles, 501 (64 children) were in unincorporated areas, 275 (38 children) were in Grover Beach, 209 (27 children) were in Atascadero, 118 (14 children) were in Arroyo Grande, 66 (five children) were in Morro Bay and 48 (three children) were in Pismo Beach. Further, there were 988 homeless children counted in public schools throughout the county but their places of residence were not available to the enumerators. Also, the home city of 27 persons was not included in the January 2009 report.

Thirty-five percent of the respondents said they were homeless because they were unable to pay rent while 20 percent said unemployment was the cause, with substance abuse, divorce and low wages each cited by 15 percent of respondents.

The complete 4,000-word report is available at the grand jury’s website at www.slo

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