By: Lindsey Holden
December 26, 2020 —
Paso Robles homeless residents have long struggled without a permanent place to seek shelter — but that changed this month.
About two-and-a-half weeks ago, the El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO) officially began serving clients at the Motel 6 off Riverside Avenue, a facility the group purchased together with Peoples’ Self-Help Housing and the Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo (HASLO) using about $15 million in state funding.
ECHO, which also maintains a transitional facility in Atascadero, will operate a portion of the motel as a low-barrier nightly shelter. The other block of rooms is being converted into permanent low-income housing to be managed by HASLO.
Previously, local nonprofit Paso Cares provided nightly meals and a warming shelter during winter months. But homeless residents had no shelter to turn to during the rest of the year, and many continuously camped in the Salinas Riverbed.
About 221 homeless residents live unsheltered in Paso Robles, according to San Luis Obispo County’s 2019 point-in-time homeless census.
Paso Robles and ECHO last year received $1.5 million to help build a permanent shelter on city-owned land on Sulphur Springs Road.
But plans for that shelter fell through, leaving the city scrambling for a new solution until the state provided funding for the Motel 6 purchase in October.
“We’re very grateful for the work Paso Cares has done in the past to provide a meal program and winter shelter,” said Jeff Al-Mashat, Paso Robles’ homeless services director. “But this is a huge step forward.”
A LOOK AT THE NEW SHELTER
Right now, the Motel 6 shelter — which will likely be called the First Step Housing Center — has a few more than 20 rooms open for residents to use at night. By the end of the year, the shelter will likely have 25 available, Al-Mashat said.
Eventually, in a post-pandemic environment, ECHO will likely house up to 60 people per night at the facility, he said. The shelter portion of the property will take up 50 rooms, and more than 60 rooms are currently being converted into permanent housing, according to a previous Tribune story.
The shelter will remain low-barrier, meaning it will accept homeless residents who may be in the throes of addiction or mental health issues and wouldn’t be welcome at other facilities.
There are some challenges that come with creating a shelter environment — which traditionally features beds set up in an open, dormitory-style setting — in a facility that was previously set up as a motel.
So far, former motel rooms have remained mostly intact, although ECHO eventually plans to remove the televisions and to build walls and create hallways to the doors, which now open outside.
For safety reasons, ECHO staff have already removed the curtains from the windows and plan to remove the room doors, once the hallways are built, Al-Mashat said.
“This is part of coming to a shelter,” he said. “We have to be able to access people so we can make sure people are being safe.”
Homeless residents looking to stay at the shelter come to the nightly Paso Cares-ECHO dinner held near Riverside Avenue and 24th Street to eat and check in.
Al-Mashat said 25 to 40 people typically need housing on a given night, and staff first select residents who have children or are medically fragile.
Shelter residents receive fresh sheets and towels, but they must clean their own rooms in the evening and in the morning, before they’re required to leave at 7 a.m.
HASLO has hired security staff to be on-site at all times, and driveway barriers prevent vehicles from accessing the motel without clearance. At night, when shelter rooms are occupied, ECHO staff remain on-site and conduct rounds of the facility, Al-Mashat said.
To prevent COVID-19 transmission, residents must wear masks on site, and they’re instructed to maintain a distance from others staying at the shelter.
HOMELESS RESIDENTS REACT TO THE SHELTER
On Monday, homeless residents gathered for the nightly dinner and to check in for the shelter.
Some people were more excited about the facility than others, who said they’re frustrated with changing rules as ECHO continues to ramp up services.
The nonprofit housed people at the motel in November on an emergency basis before officially opening the shelter in December. The transition from motel to shelter has aggravated some residents, and ECHO is working to “manage expectations,” Al-Mashat said.
Ramon Martinez came to Paso Robles from the East Bay and sleeps in his van when he doesn’t get a room at the shelter. He said it’s “the nicest city I’ve ever been to,” and he’s found people to be very helpful in contrast to where he came from.
“I just texted my sister photos of the rooms, how nice and clean they are,” he said.
Eva Jensen and Sharon Schultz — both of whom have lived in their vehicles in Paso Robles for years — were unhappy with inconsistent procedures and sometimes felt unsafe at the shelter, especially with the lack of curtains.
“With the windows being open, I’m a single woman — people, guys, were peeking, staring into my room,” Jensen said.
Nicole Vahai — who came to Paso Robles to be near her mother, who has cancer — said she sometimes sleeps at the shelter. She’s struggled with mental health issues and a criminal conviction that make it challenging to rebuild her life.
When she’s not sleeping at the shelter, Vahai sometimes camps outside or stays with her mother.
“It’s such a blessing in this cold weather,” she said of the shelter, which she said is “not terrible, but not the greatest.”
Vahai said the shelter is especially important for the elderly and children, although she wishes there were more rooms available.
Like Jensen and Schultz, she wasn’t happy about the lack of curtains.
“I think that just screams ‘we don’t trust you, it’s an institution,’” she said.
SHELTER NOT A LONG-TERM SOLUTION
Al-Mashat emphasized the shelter is meant to help empower people to move out of homelessness and into permanent housing. ECHO has hired seven staff members to work at the facility, and the organization plans to hire more over time, he said.
The facility will eventually host the nightly dinners and provide space for case workers and Transitions Mental Health Association staff to meet with clients. Some rooms will also house residents ready for ECHO’s three-month transitional program, which helps move people into permanent housing, Al-Mashat said.
“The shelter that was originally going to be built was called First Step, and that was a wonderful concept,” he said. “Our concern was that once people took that first step and were ready to move out of their homelessness, where did they take that second step — where’s the affordable housing?”
“Having a program, where on the same campus, we have the shelter where people can take those steps, and then have affordable housing on the very same property that they can work towards, it’s just a once-in-a-lifetime project that came together for us,” Al-Mashat continued.
He said the shelter space is meant to be a jumping-off point for homeless residents, to give them a safe place to sleep and meet with case workers and mental health professionals before eventually moving on with their lives.
“The shelter is not a long-term solution for people,” Al-Mashat said. “It is a place to move forward.”
That could involve moving into low-income apartments on the same site as the shelter. Those rooms, which will be managed by HASLO, are under construction and remain vacant.
Paso Robles’ lack of dedicated homeless services has left many people without housing and support for many years. This means many of the city’s homeless residents struggle more acutely with addiction and mental health issues, Al-Mashat said.
“Because the situation here in Paso has gone unaddressed for so long, the challenges are greater,” he said.
Other homeless residents simply can’t find places to live because Paso Robles’ housing market is so tight and expensive.
“There’s a homeless issue, but there’s also a housing issue,” Al-Mashat said. “A lot of people in the (Salinas) riverbed have full-time jobs.”
Moving forward, ECHO’s goal will be to gain trust with residents and help put them on the path toward getting out of homelessness before they become too entrenched in the Salinas Riverbed or other places.
“Because of the challenges we face in the riverbed, we’re going to be low-barrier for a long time,” Al-Mashat said
This article courtesy of the San Luis Obispo Tribune
Is there a high rate of death among persons experiencing
homelessness in your community?
and let us know!
Homeless Perspective is made possible
by donations to:
More articles for you —
States Plan to Integrate a Wide-Range of Homelessness Data Sources Should Include All Medical Examiner-Coroner’s Records of Persons Who Died Homeless