The El Camino Homeless Organization is in the business of helping people help themselves into permanent housing. The organization has been in existence since 2001, started by Atascadero residents Mike and Charlotte Byrne.
When it first started, the shelter rotated locations each month until finding a year-round home at the First Baptist Church. Several years ago, the nonprofit had the opportunity to purchase the church when the building went up for sale. Since buying that building, ECHO staff, residents, and volunteers have been working to make the shelter more than just a place to spend the night.
“Even though we are a shelter, we provide a home, a home environment,” ECHO CEO and President Wendy Lewis said. “It just happens to be home for 50 people.”
Every night at 4:30 p.m., ECHO opens its doors to serve dinner to an average of 80 people.
“In the evening, we offer a meal to anyone who is hungry,” Lewis said. “It’s kind of a way to show we care.”
Lewis added that some people partake in the free meal as a way to prevent homelessness because they are low-income and have a choice between buying food or paying a bill. Those who come for the meal only have to sign in, no one has to prove anything.
For those who want to stay in the shelter, they meet with a caseworker to see if they would be a good fit for ECHO’s program.
“The case manager determines if they are a fit for our program,” Lewis said. “They have to drug- and alcohol-free and be ready to a do a lot of hard work.”
If the person is a fit for the program and there is an open bed, he or she meets with the caseworker again to set a plan. Lewis said that new residents are given five days to settle in and catch up on sleep before jumping into the plan.
“[The caseworkers] really try to fit the needs of that person,” Lewis said about the plan that is put together for each person, adding that each person and situation is unique, so each plan is as well.
The ultimate goal of the program, Lewis said, is to get each person into permanent housing. For some people that includes getting a job, staying drug- or alcohol-free, getting higher paying work or just getting back on their feet after a crisis.
In the first nine months of 2018, Lewis said that 95 people successfully graduated from the program. The program lasts 90 days, but each person or family group can get up to three one-month extensions.
The nonprofit relies on donations from individuals, other nonprofits and businesses to allow them to help even more people. To find out how you can help, go to echoshelter.org.