ATASCADERO — Nearly 17 years after co-founding the El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO), the North County’s one and only homeless shelter, teachers Charlotte and Michael Byrne will be retiring from the Board. The couple will continue traveling with their trailer and spending time with their three grown sons and four grandchildren (two of whom have served overnight as volunteers at ECHO). They plan to stay involved with ECHO, as their involvement has been a true labor of love. Though the Byrnes are now retired from the Board, they still visit the shelter and stay connected behind the scenes. They continue to spend one night a year at the shelter they founded and hope others will do the same.
Eric Gobler, Board President of ECHO, has known the Byrnes since the shelter began.
“They laid the foundation for a tremendous organization,” Gobler said. “They certainly leave a hole, because they are basically the foundation of this organization. They have built such a tremendous volunteer base — those that help at the shelter by donating food, those that chaperone at night, that help with laundry.”
The Byrnes have lived in Atascadero since 1971, after they decided to move to the area from Tujunga to find teaching jobs. Charlotte Byrne started the parent education program in Atascadero and Morro Bay. She taught Child Development part-time at Cuesta College and spent 16 years as a primary grade teacher in Shandon. Michael Byrne taught high school English in Los Angeles and then taught at Special Education at Atascadero High School until retirement. He also taught at the Atascadero State Hospital School.
“Mike and Charlotte are wonderful people who are compassionate about helping people who are less fortunate,” Gobler said. “People who were hungry or without housing or without jobs certainly were in their hearts and on their minds from the beginning and probably for a long time, even before ECHO began.”
“They have huge hearts and compassion for people who have needs,” Gobler said, “and that was the basis for the formation of ECHO. It began with a need to serve people that they saw in the street, so they started serving meals.”
The history of ECHO began in the year 2000, when a dozen local citizens (including Michael and Charlotte as ‘founding fathers’) became concerned about the growing number of poor and homeless people in the North County. Michael Byrne was able to retire from teaching a couple years before his wife, and began volunteering at Loaves and Fishes. Charlotte Byrne then began working the summers volunteering the front desk at Loaves and Fishes as well. While his wife was still working, Michael was attending meetings for the Homeless Coalition in Paso Robles.
“The whole issue of homelessness was talked to death,” said Michael Byrne.
“Talked and talked for years,” agreed Charlotte Byrne, saying she remembered one day at the desk she was checking in a person at Loaves and Fishes when she realized the woman didn’t have an address to give her. “I carefully lined that out and raised my eyebrows and looked at her and said, ‘And your new address is?’” The woman burst into tears. “They were living in her car, with a couple of kids. She was homeless.” Charlotte realized the woman had no fridge for the food Loaves and Fishes were giving out, and no stove to heat the food up. That was just one incidence, she said, when she started to realize how many people were homeless and off the radar. “It’s so invisible,” she said.
Charlotte’s friend said he would walk in the mornings and noticed certain cars were parked with steamed-up windows – a sign people were sleeping in their cars.
Both of the Byrnes remember many of the early signs that their fellow community members were homeless, living out of their cars. They decided to start helping by serving a warm meal out of Rev. John Davis’ tiny church off Curbrail. A few people started to come for the free meal. They noticed a certain veteran used to thank them up and down for the meal, and said he had to go home now every time, but he didn’t have a home and they knew that he was just too embarrassed to say it.
Meeting in living rooms, twelve citizens: Charlotte and Michael Byrne, Sherry Barton, Jean Lowe, Diane Mann, Asta and Duane Hamann, Maggie Fertschneider, George Marrett, Rev. John Davis, Wendy Minarik and Connie Hendricks began the process of forming a non-profit to explore the possibility of serving meals as well as providing overnight shelter for the homeless population.
The small group received its non-profit status as ‘ECHO,’ and began its work with the homeless in July of 2001.
“We didn’t realize it, but we were experimenting with a volunteer paradigm,” said Michael Byrne. “We had groups of people bringing food in, and that whole thing evolved into what we have going now, which is 35 different food groups coming in all the time.” Currently churches like St. Williams and organizations like the Kiwanis Club take turns bringing one daily dinner meal for anyone in the community who needs it, every day of the month at ECHO. The meals were helping so much, but they knew feeding the homeless was just one piece of the puzzle. The homeless needed housing.
The Byrnes tried to get Loaves and Fishes to expand to shelter services, but the Board was not willing to change their mission, however they helped as fiscal agents while the Byrnes and others began on their own. So the Byrnes, who go to St. Williams Church themselves, held a meeting and invited “a bunch of pastors.” They literally opened the phone book under ‘CH’ and found every priest and pastor in town with a goal to find out who had the space to house the homeless. Everyone was telling the Byrnes to just get started so the Byrnes became the ones to do it. The Byrnes said Pastor Rick Comstock of the First Assembly of God was the very first to offer up his church’s social hall.
“He said, ‘well you can first start with us,’” Charlotte Byrne said. When the Byrnes asked him for 64 overnight volunteers and their location (to sleep in pairs every night for one month), Comstock said, “I got it – anything else?”
“We were never ready for anything,” Charlotte Byrne laughed. “Whatever were we thinking?”
“Christ just helps you become ready in ways that you didn’t realize you were ready,” Michael Byrne explained as his wife smiled.
“So we had a little money,” said Charlotte Byrne of the early beginnings. “So we went out to Big 5 and bought 31 cots, pillows, and all this stuff.” As the weather grew colder, five churches offered their facilities – each for one month – and ECHO opened its overnight shelter on December 10 of 2001. Their first homeless overnight visitor was a young lady and her son. The next night, there wasn’t a single soul in a cot. “Nobody came,” said Charlotte Byrne and her husband laughed that this was their first lesson in marketing. But soon the word made its way out. By December 31, every cot was filled.
The very first ECHO churches to open their doors to the homeless were: First Assembly of God Church, Community Church, United Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church of Templeton and Atascadero Church of the Nazarene. The Byrnes said the members of the churches never ignored their tenants and helped whenever they were needed, which really helped their cause. “None of these churches ever even asked us to pay the electric bill or the heating bill or anything,” Charlotte Byrne said. “It was a gift.”
In May of 2002, after these five churches had each housed the shelter for one month, ECHO prepared to store the cots until the following winter season. They had been through much already with the cots. A volunteer would load the toaster and the coffee maker and the pillows and cots up into the back of a flat-bed truck at the end of each month to go to the next shelter, making sure not to break the cots down because that caused blood blisters. One of them was lost on the freeway during transport.
“We went through these five churches and then we were out of churches,” Charlotte Byrne said.
It was at that time the people of First Baptist Church offered their spacious rooms during the seven month gap. But Charlotte got word of a very large, two-story white church close to the parking lot of the football stadium near the high school. The church, with its small congregation of only 12 people at the time, was set back, so she hadn’t even heard of it, or she would have contacted them. But when they heard the good news, they pitched their deal. First Baptist agreed to offer their upstairs.
For the first five years ECHO continued to move from church to church, staying at First Baptist Church the majority of the year.
“There we were, cots upstairs, bathrooms downstairs,” Charlotte Byrne said. Michael Byrne added, “I wrote the first grant for $5,000. It was a community development block grant and the money was used to convert a closet into a shower, and it served the needs of 30 people. I cannot believe it. The water never went cold!”
In 2006, an agreement was reached to use the Baptist Church on a yearly basis. Bunk beds replaced the original cots. As renters, though, ECHO had to tiptoe past the edges so as not to disturb church activities. ECHO’s Board made many pleas to purchase the facility, but after one of the church’s main benefactor’s passed away, the time was right to sell to ECHO. The Byrnes remember being at a Christmas party when the church accepted their offer to buy the facility. ECHO’s board made no counter offers. They had been squirreling their money away and they wanted the sale without question.
In 2013, ECHO purchased the Church and was granted permission by the City of Atascadero to operate a 50-bed shelter. Once the community heard the shelter offered a meal a night as well as bed for the homeless, the donations began to come in full. Kiwanis donated $25,000 for the playground and ABC Church $185,000 for the shower building. North County Glass put in $15,000 worth of windows for nothing, and countless community members and businesses kicked in to help bring the building up to code. PRJUSD and AUSD have been instrumental in creating programs for homeless children as well, the Byrnes said, and Cal Poly professors have provided student volunteers for the majority of the overnights.
“The community has been so good to us,” Michael Byrne said and his wife added that they still depend on the churches and members of the community to volunteer, donate and supply the meals for the homeless they serve, and though they are retiring, they are leaving with the conviction that the operation they were a big part in creating is sustainable. The property is forever permitted and dedicated as a homeless shelter, and that gives the Byrnes peace of mind. The meal program, helps with as outreach and interviewing for those who may need to stay at the shelter. The Byrnes feel the homeless population is growing – no more, and no less than a demographic function of population growth.
“It’s up to the Board and the Executive Director to figure out how we will grow from this point on,” Michael Byrne said. “Obviously a day center is very important. Obviously adding more social services is very important, and a political advocacy for more cheap rentals and more affordable first time buyer homes.”
Charlotte’s background in parent education has always been a motivator in recognizing the need for parent education with the homeless. “One of the things that very well could evolve out of our ECHO services has to do with parent education as many of the [homeless] population are kids and we’ve got a captive audience, so to speak, and an appreciative audience once they see the benefits.” said Michael Byrne.
The next open house for ECHO is scheduled for June 2 at 9 a.m. The community is invited for a tour of the shelter and a forum to voice their concerns for the homeless in the North County.
You may reach Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected] for questions and/or feedback.