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Trying to clear riverbed of people, Paso Robles sets up homeless camp

Angel Russell/KCBX
The Borkie Flats 'campground' is now awaiting tenants.

A new campground of sorts is now set up for homeless individuals living in Paso Robles. City officials say the main goal is to relocate people living in the Salinas riverbed, where several fires have ignited.

Kermin Alan has been in Paso Robles for more than 15 years; the last few years he’s been living with others in tents along the riverbed. On Thursday, he decided to come up and check out the new campsite, because as of yet, no one has stayed there.

“It’s pretty nice, actually,” Alan said. “It takes one person to come out of the group and say ‘Hey I live up top’ and then that’s when a lot of people will start moving in.”

Alan said he’s not sure if the men he knows along the riverbed would be willing to move to the new spot, but he thinks it is a better, more secure location for the women and children living unsheltered along the river.

“I’m telling all the ladies when they come out, hey, you don’t want to stay down here. You know what I mean? Because of all the guys,” Alan said. “The girls will be up here, I can tell you that.”

Credit Angel Russell/KCBX
The site includes a temporary office and a big security presence.

The campsite opened this week along River Road on city-owned acreage called Borkey Flats. The site has fresh water, porta-potties, an outdoor shower, camping tents and daily food service.

Paso Robles Fire Battalion Chief Randy Harris said the decision to create the camp was driven by the risk of fires in the riverbed.

“Paso Robles has had over 300 fires in the riverbed in the last 42 months,” Harris said. “ So it’s really important that we look at reducing the fire risk.”

Harris said although the budget is not final, the cost to the city to run the camp includes monthly rental expenses of $3500 for the portable bathrooms, a generator and lighting.

Providing security will cost up to $17,000 monthly. The city reports the operational costs could run potentially as high as $1.2 million over a year.

But at a July city council meeting, Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin said he knows it’s a very expensive proposition during an economic downturn.

“But I can only ask, how expensive will it be if another fire starts up and it is started by the homeless, and it does burn down homes and it does kill people?” Martin said. “I just don’t think we have much of a middle road to walk here.”

Harris said the campsite is intended to last up to a year, but could be longer depending on needs.

The city is building a permanent homeless shelter, expected to open in mid-2021, aiming to house up to 35 to 50 people at a time.

Angel Russell is a former KCBX News reporter who started her career in journalism as a reporter and producer for KREX on Colorado's Western Slope; she later moved to the Central Coast to work for KSBY as weekend anchor and weekday reporter. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, and playing guitar and piano.
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