Of the nearly 500 homeless and unsheltered individuals in SLO’s North County, 70 to 90 of those people live in encampments on the banks of the Salinas River in Paso Robles.
With a heavy dose of El Niño rains expected to hit the Central Coast this month (arriving as early as March 5) that could flood the Salinas River and endanger human life, the Paso Robles City Council unanimously voted on March 1 to authorize a $69,000 evacuation and cleanup of those homeless encampments.
Starting on March 2, Paso Robles police will begin issuing warnings to individuals of the evacuation effort, allowing them seven days to evacuate before police enforcement begins.
“We don’t want to stand by and say, ‘Gosh, maybe we should’ve done something,’” Assistant City Manager Meg Williamson told New Times. “We’re acting on human life safety. We’re trying to do the right thing.”
For several months, Paso Robles police and local homelessness services organizations like Paso Cares have been in contact with individuals living on the riverbed, advising them to evacuate the area and alerting them to upcoming storms.
“With just a few inches of water, someone sleeping in a tent with any kind of impairment could easily drown in that amount of water,” Paso Police Lt. Ty Lewis told the City Council on March 1.
On Feb. 17, Paso Robles declared a shelter crisis, and since then, city staff has been in discussions with local homeless services agencies to identify areas where the city could assist in tackling the problem. As part of those discussions, the importance of evacuating the Salinas River camps became a top priority.
At the March 1 meeting, a repeated concern was: Where will the evacuated individuals go after the evacuation of the riverbed is complete?
“There’s a shelter crisis; I’m wondering which public facilities we are offering [for them]?” Councilmember Fred Strong asked. “Have we identified any buildings, any parking lots, any safe areas that are public, where these people can go when they’ve been told to pick up and leave?”
“That’s a very good question,” Williamson responded. “The homeless sheltering plan is a work in progress.”
The city identified a few facilities that could be used as emergency shelters, namely the Paso Robles Event Center, but the buildings are meant to be used as warming centers during extreme, life-threatening cold and wet weather. Heavy rains are forecast for this month, but overnight temperatures aren’t expected to drop to severe levels.
Paso Cares, a local homelessness services organization, will work closely with the evacuation effort to assist individuals.
In addition to vacating human beings from the area, the city will launch a cleanup effort to dispose of garbage and help with the storage of individuals’ property.
“There’s trash, rubbish, biohazard waste, people are using the restroom and storing it down there,” Lt. Lewis said. “We have a lot of issues we’ll have to address.”
The City Council instructed staff to provide a progress report of the evacuation in 30 days.