Correction: This commentary was corrected to note that the editorial it's responding to was a piece in the Tribune.
A recent editorial in the San Luis Obispo Tribune castigated the Atascadero City Council for declining to request that the National Guard Armory located adjacent to downtown Atascadero be used as a warming shelter this winter ("Don't be Scrooge Atascadero ... ," Dec. 2). The piece only gave half the story, leaving out significant information that you deserve to hear.
Atascadero has been a leader in the county helping the displaced, the homeless, and transients over the last 30 years. When the city of San Luis Obispo was still arguing about where a homeless shelter should be built or even if a location could be found in the city, Atascadero was in its third decade of caring for others via the El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO), which is staffed by volunteers and funded primarily by private donations.
I found the editorial's comments galling as just a few years ago when a local citizen who had been providing shelter for displaced persons on his SLO/Los Osos Valley Road property, an army of code enforcement officers descended upon his property to shut down his operation. He'd been doing this for years without city assistance, but complaints from neighbors motivated the city to respond. The property owner faced legal consequences, even the loss of his property if he didn't comply.
While Atascadero has led the county in sheltering disadvantaged people, some cities re-direct their transient population to Atascadero. Consequently, the ECHO shelter is at maximum capacity. It also has rules, such as no weapons, illegal drugs, or alcohol permitted on the premises; once you are admitted, you are inside for the night. Occupants agree to not leave the shelter once admitted until the morning to prevent clandestine substance abuse and to not generate problems for neighbors. A result of this security policy, which has worked well for ECHO and its volunteer staff, is that a significant number of local transients, for safety reasons, are turned away due to inebriation, possession of contraband, or severe issues of mental instability. It is this group that a local volunteer group wished to house in the Atascadero National Guard Armory.
First, the armory is located in a designated (by city ordinance) "drug free zone," which was established at the request of parents of school children more than two decades ago. It hasn't stopped violations, but it does provide a tool for local police to keep a lid on drug abuse near schools and youth activities. Transient drug abuse adjacent to the City Hall has become so severe that the city was forced to place sharps containers in City Hall ground-floor restrooms used by transients to clean up but also to dispose of their hypodermic needles in bathroom trash cans.
Second, the armory is directly adjacent to the Atascadero Middle School, the Fine Arts Academy, the city youth center (officially designated as the Community Center), the skateboard park, several youth athletic playing fields, the Joy Park designed specifically for the use of disabled children and their parents, and The Printery, which has just been purchased by a local group for redevelopment into a community performing arts center. Altogether, the city has spent many millions of dollars in this sector of town to provide a safe place for children and the general public for a variety of family-oriented activities. A block away is the core of the Atascadero Downtown shopping area. The city and the local Chamber of Commerce have struggled for years to lure local shoppers and foot traffic there to enhance the economic viability of the core commercial center of the city.
Third, not mentioned in the editorial critique was the demand by the state Military Department that the city pay $441/day for use of the armory. For the period specified for just this winter, the tab was more than $35,000 up front in an unbudgeted requirement. Some other budget priority would have to forfeit part of its funds to pay this last-minute request. That was not the only cost as unspecified "upgrades" would also become the responsibility of the city along with paying for a security officer to be on duty. No cost estimate was provided, but the building is old and costs, when a security contract is included, could escalate to $100,000 or more.
The armory is not fenced or contained; the motor pool is fenced, but the entrance and parking lot of the building aren't. Nothing would inhibit a transient from leaving after admitted; they are not searched for weapons or contraband, and the very existence of the shelter in this area will serve as a magnet to gather long before it opens. This is the experience of the ECHO facility, which is adjacent to the high school and across the street from North County Christian School. ECHO strictly regulates its population, but there are still occasional problems. The high school kids are older, and the Christian school facility is fenced and closely monitored, minimizing security issues.
Protests that security concerns are overblown doesn't diminish the real possibility of danger to children or adults by concentrating this particular population in this area. Atascadero has spent millions on these facilities and promised parents a "safe space" to bring their children. Introducing an unstable population into this area would be a betrayal of that promise to parents and the public as local school officials attending the public hearing emphatically stated. There are better alternatives to address this problem. Δ
Al Fonzi is an Army lieutenant colonel of military intelligence who had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Send comments through the editor at email@example.com.