Miles to Go, Messages of Hope on the Rough Road to End Homelessness in SLO

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If there is no answer to homelessness, Dee Torres, Director of Homeless Services for the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County (CAPSLO), didn’t get the memo. And if she got it, she tossed it, because as far as she’s concerned – and she’s very concerned – she going’s to do everything she can to put an end to the homeless crisis in San Luis Obispo County.

Miss Torres and CAPSLO manage the County’s two shelters, Prado Day Center and 50-bed night shelter Maxine Lewis, and she knows it will take an aggressive, coordinated effort to achieve that goal. With the help of Friends of Prado Day Center, led by its president and longtime volunteer Roy Rawlings, and the many good people dedicated to seeing homelessness in retreat by the end of the decade, no one should bet against her no matter how great the odds.

“There’s no glory in this,” Miss Torres said recently at the Prado Day Center off South Higuera in San Luis Obispo. “You have to love what you do.”

Miss Torres was the manager at Prado for a decade and became director several years ago, the hours increasing along the way. After 20 years on the long, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching road to end homelessness, she has become a passionate advocate for the homeless, a fluent translator of their needs, and eloquent expert on a subject that few can talk about knowledgeably in the right way, with the right tone, without sounding like an outsider talking about something that someone told them. Because of her valuable experience working with the realities of the homeless and her ability to break down and articulate the nuances of the issues, she is practically indispensable to the efforts of CAPSLO, SLO County and the community to implement a solution — and make it work.

Caring about the homeless didn’t start out as a job for Miss Torres; it was an instinctive reaction. She was first jolted to an awareness of homeless people in her sheltered youth. “I got involved in this as a student. I came from an upper middle-class family in Orange County. As a teenager I saw my first homeless people going to a movie in Santa Monica at the Third Street Promenade, and I was shocked. I got so curious – why is this happening? I started my own thing with my friends passing out sandwiches, kind of getting to know people, and then just continued on. I started here with overflow. I would do the overflow with the churches as a volunteer. I went on to work for the shelter for about six months, and then came here as a manager at the day center. I did that for about 10 years, then became director.”

Miss Torres is in charge of an overloaded, scattered and disjointed system. Prado is crowded and cramped. A modern new Homeless Services Center is set to crawl off the drawing boards in 2013 and open in 2015. In the meantime, a walk through Prado illustrates why the new center is desperately needed, especially when homelessness is getting worse, not better. Prado was opened in 1997 when an average of 60 homeless people a day came through its doors. Twenty-five years later that number has more than doubled.

“If you start pitting this center with even some like the day care center in Santa Barbara or some of the other programs locally, we really run on a shoe string,” she says. “Our budget is next to nothing, and on a good day we have three staff members on site. And so if we’re talking about 120 to 150 people, that can be as many as 40 to 50 people per one staff person. That’s an unheard of ratio. I do a lot of touring because we’re preparing for our new center. I just wanted to see what’s out there, do a lot of visiting other cites, (and when I tell them) their jaw drops. The normal accepted ratio is more like a 10 to one sort of a thing, not a 40 to 50 to one staffer.

“We do our best to provide the core services – showers, meals, the mail service, things like that, but at the same time we’re constantly challenged to meet clients’ needs, and so we continue to develop programs to do that.”

For example, Prado has developed a ‘medically fragile’ motel voucher program for clients with an illness – it could even be just a contagious rash that would prohibit them from being in the center. “For a long time we were having to just put them out for the safety of others in the environment,” she says. “Now we have a program where we can actually put them up in a motel for a few days so they can get rested and then come back into the environment. We have no money for that program, so we raised money for that program. It’s an extra duty that the staff takes on, to refer people and work with the motels and do all of that…

“We also have a program to get the kids out of here during the days, and on the weekends, after school and before school. That’s another program we’ve raised extra money for, but we don’t put any staffing in that, so it’s added to our duties. But we think that it’s really important to have the kids have a regular environment just like all the opportunities that other children have to play, to go to the Hearst Castle, to swing on swings, and all those things.

“It’s a complex and challenging issue,” Miss Torres stresses. “Traditionally we are providing services to the people in the community that nobody else really knows how to provide. They’re ending up here generally. Everybody’s individual, but they’ve fallen through all the other cracks. They don’t have the same family support, generally. Everyone’s different, but they don’t have those supports and so people don’t know how to respond. I mean, this isn’t just an issue for San Luis Obispo, this is an issue across the country.  If there was an easy answer we wouldn’t be sitting here. It’s challenging and complex, so people tend to take a more phased view of things…

“So we’re really at capacity at this point with what we continue to do. At the same time we’ve taken on the safe parking program and we’re doing that without adding staffing. That’s something that we’re going to try to monitor via internet and with our existing staff, but we are challenged as the number of clients continue to rise. We continue to serve them in spite of that, and try to do it in a more comprehensive way, but we’re really just wearing extra hats rather than adding any funding or adding staff. We are doing it with the same staff – we had three staff when we had the 60 people, we had two and a half, three staff people for that — so we really haven’t added staff.”

Roy Rawlings has been volunteering for eight years, and he’s also President of Friends of Prado, charged with fundraising, keeping the lights on and programs flowing. When he was a veteran he was homeless, and he’s been involved ever since.”We’re pretty much maxxed out in terms of size and capabilities,” he says. “That’s why we’re looking at having a new center program.”

Mr. Rawlings described the situation as “sad,” but he also has his non-nonsense finger on the pulse of what needs to be done. “This complex and the service they provide (comes down to) the importance of case management,” he says. “That’s really critical to me. But this is just one piece of the puzzle. You’ve got mental health. A lot of the homeless are in a mental health state, everything from deeply schizophrenic to something else. Some can be medicated, some can’t. So there’s this huge gap.

“Then you’ve got the others who were working before the recession and they’re not working anymore,” he says. “They were kind of marginalized to start with, and don’t have a lot of capacity to find new jobs, and there aren’t a lot of new jobs. Then there are others, quite frankly; it’s harder to deal with what they’re not interested in. Plus, this is an important piece of that puzzle: People in here, generally speaking, would like to find a way to become more self-sufficient, and that’s what the goal is. They want that self-sufficiency to move into society, and feel better about it at the end of the day.”

Compared to a for-profit business, measuring the success of a shelter is very difficult to quantify, but the ability to steer willing clients into case management and help those willing to help themselves toward self-sufficiency, is fundamental to Prado’s mission.

“Success, for us, is different for each individual, “Miss Torres says. “Our main goal is getting people housing, permanent housing – and that could be housing here locally, it could be housing back in Washington with grandma or with a relative. We always look at the immediate circle because the housing is really tough here. So we don’t encourage people to ‘come and we will house you.’ No, when they come to us, the first thing we look at, especially if they’re from out of the area, is do you have ties, do you have a sister in Oregon. [Through case management] you take the individual, and you take the whole individual as they are, and you work with them to address the issues that generally got them into this situation in the first place.”

The three case managers work countywide, including in SLO working out of the day center and night shelter. They are paid professionals that all have had six to 10 years experience working in SLO with this population.

“We had about 300 people (in case management) last year,” Miss Torres says. “The challenge is we’re still after 20 years kind of going it alone. Mental health, drug and alcohol… there’s no drug and alcohol counselor that comes out here and works with the client. It’s limited to one mental health outreach worker for the homeless – countywide. It’s all budgetary; we’re constantly pressuring (for funds). It always comes down to money. So we end up being that catch-all, end-all deal, and it’s challenging. The economy’s getting worse. We’re not on an island here in St. Louis. We house people but the problem grows.

“In my 20 years,” she says, “I’m seeing pretty much the same type of situations that I saw 20 years ago. I’m seeing a lot of stress and trauma, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, some of it leading all the way to childhood. I’m seeing people that come to us generally. We do have those people that just were hit by the economy – those are the easier ones for us to usually help, and that’s great – but the chronic homeless and the real needy in the population are the real tough cases. We’re seeing them and we’re seeing it get worse.

“With the economy, we’re not so much seeing people whose homes were foreclosed on and now they’re in the shelter. We’re not really seeing that; usually those people have other resources. But we are seeing how the economy is hitting us and hitting these other departments, such as the Department of Social Services, other workers in other areas. As a result, a lot of people are coming to us with more complicated issues that aren’t being addressed in other areas, so it’s getting tougher.”

Looking five years down the road, Miss Torres is “nervous” for the challenge she sees ahead for the community. “The community dialogue is good. It’s good that we’re addressing it and it’s getting the attention that we weren’t getting five years ago. Honestly, the only reason I’m doing this is to end this thing. Everyone says you’re never going to end it; I’m not going into it thinking that. My goal is that we will. For me the dream is the center that we’re building. We’ve been titled the land and we’re moving forward, and bringing the services – you see how impacted we are here – being able to have more offices for more providers, and really pressure – we’re doing that now – the County to find resources, find the money, this is important… Bring the mental health and bring all these services under one roof, and cut down on the transitory way that the population is treated now, going here and there.

“Homelessness is hardest right now just in our community on the children. They’re from birth sometimes – because we do get them right out of the hospital – put in some migrated state where they come here to the center during the day, then they go to the shelter in early evening. Then from the shelter they’re bussed to an overflow, and they’re supposed to do well in school all day when they’re woken up at 6 a.m. from their cot and bussed to a school, so it’s really tough on the kids. At our new center it’s a one-stop. The kids can come after school. We’re going to have study areas, play areas, then the people there to support them, and a special dorm area where it’s more family oriented with a goal of stopping this thing, breaking the cycle, bringing the services now that are disjointed and all over the place that we’re sending them all to, under one roof and help people move forward. At the same time our community still has some work to do on what’s going on out there.”

Adds Mr. Rawlings: “The more you can break that cycle, you also ease the pressures on the hospitals, law enforcement, all those things people don’t realize with a little help over here will help relieve the pressure there. To the extent that you can keep the family together, and not put them through the foster home system and the cycle there, you’re also really enhancing the ground-level foundation of society, so it’s really important that we get the center started and all the things that help connect the dots. Right now there’s a lot of fragmentation and inefficiency, and we think this will help, though it may not be perfect.”

Miss Torres counsels that success in her line work, or productivity, if you will, is measured by the most unique criteria. Sometimes it’s strictly individual. “Sometimes we get people who don’t know where they were born, have never had a birth certificate, they’ve never seen their birth certificate. We had a guy who was sold when he was very young for a pickup truck to a separate family. He was beaten and molested; he is developmentally disabled. When we got him he was in his early twenties. The sweetest guy you’ve ever known, and he became very attached to us, like family. Through hard work we ended up getting him into a program where he got a little job that he can do and housing. It took about a year really working with him, but his story is just unbelievable.

“Sometimes (success) is helping somebody get medical services,” she continues. “If you ever look at a real true homeless person… Housing is like the big one. That’s the ultimate goal. Of course, they’re homeless. You’re hoping to get a roof over their heads. That’s the goal. But there are so many milestones in between, and for some people – not everyone who comes here is homeless, that’s not a requirement; it’s really for the needy – we have some people that supplement their income by doing their laundry here or getting a meal. They are people that we house that I’ve known them for 15 years. They come and say hi and get a lunch, and by supplementing their income, by getting a lunch here — we also give out bags of food for housed people to take home with them when we have it in our kitchen — that helps them to stay out, because, honestly, we have people that at the end of the month when they’re done paying their bills, just their basic breads, their electricity and the rest, they have $8 for the month, and that’s what they’re living on. So they supplement, they’re able to survive and stay housed with the services that we can provide here. So we run the whole gamut. We try to accommodate people at all levels. So success is really individual; success for that person is if they’re getting a meal and if they’re staying healthy and they’re staying in their house, it’s not so much housing.”

Prado staff earns about $12 an hour, and the work can be challenging, but Miss Torres says they do what they do because they believe in what they’re doing. “There are people that come, they work here and last two weeks or two months or six months (and determine) ‘it’s not for me.’ But the people that are here and stay here — you don’t stick around, it’s not for the glory — it’s because we love what we’re doing. We aren’t here to perpetuate homelessness. We really are here to end it.”

Sometimes staff morale suffers when critics who don’t work every day with this tough population take potshots from afar. “You feel like saying, ‘you know you could do so much good if you just took the front desk four hours a day. Do you really want to help?’ I feel like because we’ve been able to raise awareness of homelessness, now we’re getting it all – the good, the bad and the ugly… and I’m thinking, ‘you know, you’re not trying to solve anything, you don’t understand what we’re doing down here’…”

Some of that “ugly” has flared up over the center’s new Safe Parking Program, which provides five overnight parking spots in the Prado lot for those homeless who qualify. Some businesses are upset with it, staff has yet another program to handle, and critics are carping. “I have friends, donors and supporters that are really mad right now, and I’m just continuing to work with them and try to give them the truth. I’m not conceding anything, I’m not giving up, but it’s challenging. There’s a fight everywhere. The population is a vulnerable population, and to advocate for them you really put yourself out there.”

The Safe Parking Program has been a lightning rod, says Miss Torres, partly because staff and case management are also involved, and “because there are five spots and it’s meant to be a temporary housing solution towards permanent housing. With the parking program (and) the exact same case management program that we do here and at the shelter, we are saying to (clients), ‘if you want to park here, then you need to participate with the case management program because (parking overnight) can’t be a long-term solution. You’re not going to live in the parking lot. We can’t do it. You can’t stay here.’ We’ve had people stay at the shelter for a year, two years; we never give up on them. As long as you’re working with us, we have a high-percent success rate qualified by the fact that you continue to work with us. You save your money, you set goals, you reach goals, we will house you. We don’t have anyone that’s been in the program that’s not housed.”

Miss Torres draws support from dedicated, veteran contributors like Mary Parker, President of the People’s Kitchen, which provides hot noonday meals to Prado. “Mary is a good friend of mine, and she’s been doing this a long time. She used to be the head of nursing at Cuesta for years and has been around the block with this. She says, ‘I keep telling you it’s just Chinese water torture. You just keep wearing down the negative, you just gotta hang tough and they go away eventually.’ And that’s what I’ve noticed happens, especially, as I was telling the staff, when you have the truth…”

While self-sufficiency remains the goal, not every homeless person wants to go through case management, whether they know or accept what’s good for them or not. Sometimes, people Prado tries to help don’t want to be part of the system. “The problem that we have and the problem mental health has – and why we’re not able to be 100% self-sufficient with everyone — is because people do have free choice,” Miss Torres says. “That’s what we’re all trying to figure out what to do. The only thing we do with that is that most people just choose — they don’t want to save their money. That’s the bottom line. At our shelter, you have a guaranteed bed if you go on case management, and you’re guaranteed a bed until you’re housed, so why wouldn’t everybody take advantage of that if they’re homeless and they want to be housed? (Some) don’t want it.”

Since CAPSLO is a nonprofit, not a County-run shelter, Miss Torres can’t afford to let occasional criticism and accompanying frustration knock her off track. She knows it’s an imperfect system, but she has an important job to do, and a big part of that is fundraising. She can’t respond to hecklers in the cyber shadows. A lot of people depend on her. There’s no time to dress the wounds of the healthy when the focus should be on the needy and mentally ill.

“We have to fundraise 50% every year of everything that we do just to make ends meet,” she says. “It changes depending on what comes down from the state, so we fundraise – I think this year alone it’s close to $200,000 – just to keep the doors open, not to add any services. That’s just for the Prado Day Center. Every year. We’re lucky here at Prado because we have a fundraising board – all volunteers, the Friends of Prado, of which Roy (Rawlings) is the President, and they take on the majority of that. But even with the support that they give us – and I work closely with them so I help them to fundraise — I have to do my own private fundraising to put into the budget to keep the doors full hours.

“Two years ago we were supposed to close early because we couldn’t make budget, so I was the director and the Prado manager at the same time, for the same salary. Just to keep the doors open. I always dropped dead and we raised the money, and then we hired Shawn Ison to take over Prado so that I could focus on raising more money, but then that’s just Prado. For the night shelter we have to raise over $200,000 on top of the money we get to keep those doors open. So it’s constant.”

While there is a lot of support for collective efforts from businesses and, yes, attorneys to help the homeless, many in the public don’t want to see homeless people or hear about them, perhaps because they were once verbally assaulted by a homeless person, or they fear being assaulted.

“Remind them that homeless people can be a three-day old infant,” says Miss Torres. “People forget, they get so locked into the stereotype of what they see outside the post office, and that’s not the sum total of homelessness. In the schools they counted close to 2,000 children county-wide that are going to our schools, that are doubled up in houses or literally homeless. People don’t think about that. You see the little kids over there? They’re homeless. How can you blame them? You can’t.”

Many homeless were first innocent victims of crime. Miss Torres learned about a pattern a longtime local probation officer noticed among female probationers, that 99.9% of them had been sexually molested either as a child or raped as an adult. “I started looking at our female population,” says Miss Torres. “It’s so prevalent. A lot of these issues go all the way back to childhood trauma and things like that, so how do you start hating people that have not been given the same opportunities? How do you hate the mentally ill? People get afraid because if you start acknowledging it, then maybe you have to do something about it, and most people don’t want to know about it. (They say:) ‘I can barely pay my own rent. What can I do?’ (They) either ignore it or demonize it.

“It’s coming from an almost understandable place. I think we’re all feeling kind of pinched, and it’s easy to just wish it away and say, ‘well, I barely can make it… Gee, that guy needs to get a job, then he’ll be okay’ … Anything we can do to break down (the stereotypes that prevent real understanding). It’s a lot of good people trying to figure it out,” she said.

Miss Torres has a dream she can almost touch. She can envision the end of homelessness in the County and it looks a lot like the new multi-million-dollar 200-bed, 24-hour Homeless Services Center, which is expected to break ground in 2013 on South Higuera Street adjacent to the Department of Social Services and open doors in May/June 2015. Even with the homeless numbers in the County on the rise — almost 4,000 homeless on any given night, more than one third children — the economy worsening, and finding money to keep it all going a constant struggle, Dee Torres continues to believe that even the scourge of homelessness itself has an end point, an actual place where, when you let it in, it’s home. And only then and there, once that place is built, can she finally begin to close the door once and for all on this long, painful, too-human march for help that as of today still remains, unfortunately, a journey unfinished.

Further Reading

How to Do What You Can

Prado can always use volunteers. The center has a long history of enjoying the benefits of many great volunteers of all kinds who have contributed their time and energy because they wanted to, not for any recognition. Some volunteered their expertise — cut hair, did foot massages, did art, etc.

“I like to hear from the volunteers to see what they’re interested in,” says Dee Torres of CAPSLO, which manages Prado and the Maxine Lewis night shelter. “If they don’t come to us with a specific interest, then the front desk is the best place to be because they can answer the phones. We usually ask for four-hour shifts if they’re doing the front desk. It’s like an 8 a.m. to noon, then a 12 to 4 p.m. shift.”

Volunteers get the opportunity to work directly with staff and clients, find out how the shelter works, and how to help.

“Generally, what’s very helpful is when we are able to have volunteers staff our intake desk. We are always looking for that. It helps to keep the budget down and helps supplement the staffing if there’s a volunteer there and staffers are working together. They help the intake when the clients come in. They get some information, direct them to the right person, and just be kind of the point person in regards to where things are and what’s going on,” says Miss Torres.

Thinking about volunteering at Prado? Contact Dee Torres by email at:


First Annual Central Coast Oyster Festival Draws 4,000 to Morro Bay

The First Annual Central Coast Oyster Festival benefiting OPTIONS Family of Services planned to receive 2,000 to 3,000 guests celebrating the area’s world-famous oysters at the Morro Bay Golf Course. Instead, on Saturday, June 16, nearly 4,000 people showed up.

Jacqueline Delaney, Marketing Director for OPTIONS Family of Services, a non-profit organization that serves people with disabilities, and producer of the event, attributed the success of the first-time event to an enticing concept and confluence of positive elements. “The fresh oysters, the gourmet chefs, the entertainment, the local wines and beers, the event design, the sponsors, the location – it all worked together to bring in a large, diverse crowd,” Delaney said.

Plans are already underway for next year’s Central Coast Oyster Festival, she added.

As the local celebrity, oysters earned the Festival’s top billing. The first-ever “Oyster Challenge,” featuring local chefs competing for best oyster dish, was judged by local food critics, chefs and wine industry professionals. Taking first place was Giancarlo’s Ristorante Mediterreneo with Raw Oyster Shooters, followed by The Thai Bounty with Mango Chutney Oyster Shooters and Full of Life Flatbread with Oyster Flatbread Pizza. The Festival also featured an old-fashioned oyster-shucking contest won by Mark Tognazzini of Tognazzini’s Dockside.

Other event highlights included:

  • All-day entertainment from internationally-recognized Canadian band Walk Off the Earth, along with up-and-coming bands Neon Russell, TROPO and Hot Buttered Rum.
  • Close to 20,000 oysters were consumed – prepared in a variety of ways: champagne and caviar oyster shooters, oyster paella, oyster gumbo, Oysters Rockefeller and simply raw.
  • 20 food, retail and educational vendor booths lined Festival grounds.
  • The “Aphrodisiac Lounge” was a hit with its artisan cheeses, chocolates, fudge, ceviche and guacamole.
  • Colorful, creative venue designs from The Do LaB, Spincycle and Bamboo DNA
  • Awesome views of Morro Bay from the Morro Bay Golf Course
  • The “Tap It” Bar offered a special “Oyster Brew” made exclusively for the Festival by Tap It Brewing – it was in such demand that it sold out less than halfway through the day!
  • The Festival was a “Zero Waste Event.” Organizers planned ahead to reduce solid waste, reuse various elements, and set up recycling for cups, food scraps and plates. The event was also solar-powered.
  • BYO water bottle and free water was provided throughout the event.

Festival tickets were $20 in advance, $28 at the door. For more information visit


Walk Off the Earth Conquers Morro Bay

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When Walk Off the Earth, perhaps the hottest rock band on the earth at this moment, walked onto the 14th hole of the Morro Bay Golf Course, the site of the First Annual Central Coast Oyster Festival, early Saturday evening, June 16, you’d think Tiger Woods had just scored a hole in one there.

That’s how it must have sounded around the rest of the golf course when the roar went up from the 14th.

In a major coup for Morro Bay and benefiting local non-profit OPTIONS Family of Services, producers of the event, the in-demand Canadian band sent an estimated crowd of 2,500 into a frenzy when they launched into their international YouTube smash cover of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” True to their mind-blowing video, the five-piece band played “Somebody” on just one guitar – all at the same time. It was exactly what the crowd had come to see and they expressed their joy by singing and dancing along to the song the whole world has been singing. It was amazing how many people at the Oyster Festival, including adults, knew the lyrics and sang along.

Surprisingly for those who initially tuned into their videos, the band’s all-time, brilliant adaption of “Somebody” appears to be a freak of rock nature, a gem for sure, yet not typical of the group’s usual sound, style or presence. While “Somebody” and their videos captured their internet appeal, Walk Off the Earth is, at this point, more a live band than a recording band – to the delight of arm-waving, camera-crazed festival-goers that mobbed the stage throughout the performance. Met with a wave of affirmation reserved for instant classic hitmakers, the band’s youthful, high-energy appeal was undeniably contagious as they blended upbeat, catchy reggae, rap and rock, always with great harmonies and pop flair.

Though well known for their cover songs, outside of  performing “Somebody” and Adele’s “Someone Like You,” it was their uptempo, still-raw original songs that swept the crowd, led by “Magic,” “Corner of Queen” “Money Tree,” “Julia” and “These Times.” Also featured were new songs, destined hopefully for their upcoming Columbia Records debut, including Festival-festive “Summer Vibe,” “Revolution’s In My Head” and “That Gun Is Loaded.” The new songs are strong indicators that their original songwriting is gelling at the right time for long-term mainstream success beyond “Somebody.” All the pieces are in place to last. Behind the heartfelt, high-flying act (act or not), they are an impressively tight rhythm machine; band members play multiple instruments, rotate lead vocals, and bring fresh perspectives to a rock party that’s obviously just begun to roll around the world.

Loose and fearless on stage, Walk Off the Earth, anchored by singer/guitarists Gianni Luminata, Sarah Blackwood and Ryan Marshall, has rightfully earned a priceless reputation as an immensely versatile people’s band with the beat of the street in their back pocket, a band armed and ready for the future, on camera and off, online and in your face.

Morro Bay was lucky to be a small breakout point in the pop music universe for one night. The success of this first-time event is a clear signal to producers to start planning now for the Second Annual Central Coast Oyster Festival. If they can come up with next year’s Walk Off the Earth – or, even better, this year’s Walk Off the Earth again next year (wouldn’t that be something?) – more and more entertainers will discover outdoors in the fresh summer air of Morro Bay by the sea is the perfect stage.

In the meantime, the roar of Walk Off the Earth’s success will echo ’round Morro Bay Golf Course for some time to come. Also appearing on the festival stage were excellent local rockers, the Neon Russell Band, local electronic dance group TROPO, and Bay Area progressive bluegrass band Hot Buttered Rum.

— Ed Ochs

Good Tides is Good News for Los Osos

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Deep in the warm heart of Los Osos, on 2nd Street in Baywood Park, across the street from the scenic back bay, glows the “Open” sign of Good Tides, a gourmet health-food outpost hidden in the misty morn of the estuary.

Formerly a coffee shop located by the entrance to the Back Bay Inn, aptly-named Good Tides was a landmark fueling spot for early-rising bay watchers, strollers and tourists taking in the dawn bayscape with hot coffee, muffins, scones or breakfast. About a year and a half ago, Good Tides moved across the street and elevated its game. The coffee shop morphed into a high quality “organic bistro” featuring a deceptively rich and varied menu of healthy and tasty vegan and non-vegan dishes, establishing itself anew as one of the best small restaurants on the bay.

A tilted sign on the street points the way to Good Tides behind The Sculptured Egg, where patio-only dining begs for nice weather and low wind for maximum comfort; at the same time, the outdoor-dining/take-out orientation helps owner/head chef Alyx Gille keep overhead down and prices reasonable for both locals and visitors.

To the locals, every day is a nice day in Los Osos, rain or shine, so it’s easy to understand why they continue to start their day at Good Tides with coffee, lattes, oven-fresh-no-sugar-added-dairy-free bran muffins made with fresh fruit ($2.40); stuffed croissants ($2.71); crispy-fluffy Irish Scones ($2.60); oatmeal craisin/raisin cookies ($1.80); and vegan/non-gluten treats ($2.50).

It becomes even clearer why Good Tides has found a home by the bay when you discover that breakfast is served all day – and what a fine breakfast it is!

Ringing the breakfast bell with a variety and flavor too rarely found in health-food eateries, the Huevos Rancheros arrives with three large eggs, home-cooked potatoes, black beans, three corn tortillas, accented with guacamole, sour cream and salsa ($7.50). The Tri-Tip Wrap comes with grilled tri-tip, three eggs, black beans, potatoes, red onion and cheese wrapped in a large tortilla ($6.50). The Bacon or Ham & Cheese Breakfast Wrap comes with three eggs and a side of salsa ($5). The Sweet Potato Waffle is light and crispy and served with real maple syrup ($5). The veggie, ham or bacon three-egg Ultimate Scramble is topped with cheese and served with toast, bagel or potatoes ($9). These and other breakfasts are, again, served all day.

Lunch soups, salads and sandwiches are equally dynamic in their originality, execution and wholesomeness. Home-cooked vegan soups ($4.50/add $1 for grilled Italian sausage) and weekend stews ($4.50) are tasty basic hunger-chasers. The BBQ or Roast Garlic Chicken Quesadilla is a large tortilla stuffed with chicken and cheese, and accented with a small side salad and salsa ($6.50). The All the Veg Hummus Sammie is “all the veggies in the shop” on a large roll with home-made hummus ($6.95). The Grilled Eggplant Sandwich is a grilled eggplant steak on a roll flavored with home-made basil oil and served with lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber and cheese ($7.95). The Curry Mahi Mahi Sandwich is served on a roll with cole slaw ($9.25). Also available is a Tri-Tip Steak Sandwich ($8.50) and the Garden Burger with grilled onions and pickled cucumbers ($7.95).

Salad highlights are the Curry Mahi Mahi Salad ($9.95), Chopped Tri-Tip Salad with guacamole and corn tortillas ($10.55), BBQ or Roast Garlic Chicken ($9.25), and Spinach & Feta with candied walnuts and Kalamata olives.

After 5 p.m. creative dinner entrees include organic Vegan Layered Polenta with tomato gravy ($9.50), Broccoli & Bacon Mac & Cheese ($6), Lobster Mac & Cheese ($10), Seared Mahi Mahi with soba noodles and stir-fried veggies ($11.95), and Hearst Ranch Grass Fed Meat Loaf with grass-fed beef, veg and mashed potatoes ($11.95). Also popular is the half organic free-range chicken with veggies and red potatoes ($11.95). Meals are cooked to perfection, presented with pride, and generous in their portions.

Ms. Gille is a talented chef with local roots, a European culinary sensibility, and the ability to make healthy foods taste special. She grills in basil oil and deftly uses herb and spices to their full ability to bring out the flavor in farm-fresh organic veggies, chicken, fish and tri-tip. Though the menu appears modest at first glance, it’s smartly planned to appeal to veggie and non-veggie diners, and satisfy every taste you would expect from a gourmet restaurant. Healthy home-cooked goodness is her specialty, but that doesn’t mean diet-bland or added sugar. Ms. Gille doesn’t make muffins with dairy or add extra sugar. To sweeten, she uses fresh fruit, natural maple syrup, honey and coconut plam.

The personable owner/chef and assistant Emily prepare each meal both for the eye as well as the palate, a clear sign they love what they do. The meals are accented by guacamole, salsa and/or sour cream, enhanced with their own cole slaw and roast garlic dressing “for extra zip,” and they also make their own lemon curd, hummus and basil oil — and pounds of their popular sauerkraut for Saturday’s SLO farmer’s market. When you get down to it, by the time Alyx and Emily finish cooking something they bake or make from scratch with local produce and ingredients – which is how they prepare everything – the result becomes very much their own. That’s home cooking at its best, or as Alyx puts it, “the way your great-great-grandmother made it.”

Keep an eye peeled for daily specials like Wednesday’s Indian food take-away dinner-in-a-box ($6) and Friday’s BBQ tri-tip or salmon dinner. Their tropical ice tea is cloudy, strong and pungent ($2).

Good Tides is the perfect place for folks from Cayucos, Cambria or Atascadero to stop on their way to spend an afternoon at Montana de Oro — and take away a lunch as natural and appealing as the seals playing in the tidal pools and waves crashing on the rocks below.

For the locals it’s always a nice day by the bay in Los Osos, whether the tide is in or out, rain or shine. Visitors in Baywood looking for a friendly haven and natural treasures can do no wrong stumbling onto Good Tides. A beautiful day in Baywood will fill the patio at Good Tides as take-out orders flow from the kitchen.

—Ed Ochs

Good Tides Organic Bistro, 1326 2nd Street, Los Osos 93402. Hours: Monday-Sunday 6 a.m. – 8 p.m., closed Thursday. Tel: (805) 528-6000. Website: Delivery and catering available. For more information contact:

EDITORIAL: Fear Stifles the Voices of Los Osos

What’s missing here?

If things went according to our production schedule, an eye-opening interview with an elderly Los Osos couple would be featured here — not this editorial.

You are now leaving the Prohibition Zone. Next time, bring more money!

What we were going to do was show readers how this couple — like so many others who live in the Prohibition Zone — were coping with the controversial sewer project. With their enthusiastic consent to be interviewed, we planned on publishing an article about their lives, their views, and how the sewer will affect them. After volunteering to be interviewed, we arrived at their home and had a very congenial conversation with them. The wife is from the Midwest. He was from Europe. Twenty years ago, they sailed around the world only to come home to a deceptively quiet seaside town with a problem that spanned decades. At every step of the article-writing process, they were ready — and at times quite eager — to have their story told.

But then everything changed.

Within hours of the article being published, they said that they simply “changed their mind.” According to them, the article — which was already completed and they received an advanced copy of, as requested — portrayed them in a “bad light.”

They wrote that they feared unsaid repercussions and demanded that the article not be published. Despite receiving their unequivocal consent throughout the entire process (from interview to transcript to submitting them a draft), they attacked us for supposedly “using them.” They never specifically explained how we were “using them” or what we were getting out of writing an article about them. We were shocked and slack-jawed when they threatened to hire an attorney and sue us for elderly abuse if we printed the interview, which included only our questions, their words, and context necessary to tell their story to the outside world. Nothing more.

“It would be in your best interest to drop [the article],” they warned with a strangely harsh and insidious tone.

It was the first time in over four decades of journalism that the publisher of The ROCK was at the receiving end of such a catastrophic dissolution to an article that was consistently paved with the best intentions. It was as if someone told them that having their story published would result in something very unsavory happening to them. Given that there was no transition from enthusiastic acceptance of an article being published to ravaging fear and anger over an article they believed would result in personal repercussions, we have reason to believe that there was external coercion.

We’ve taken more than our share of shots from Los Ososans, but, to date, the dishonesty of this couple is one of the worst we’ve ever faced in Los Osos.

While this interview is unique in the way it dissolved, the tensions in Los Osos are not new to us. Since we launched initially in March 2006, The ROCK has frequently and repeatedly reached out to those who criticized the sewer project. We reached out to vocal residents who both supported and criticized the project. When we sought the opinions of residents who criticized the project, we often received no response. On the other hand, for the six years we’ve committed to doing this publication, we have been met with staunch resistance from both Los Osos sewer supporters and critics alike — after years of listening to circular arguments and unsubstantiated bravado from the podium at Board of Supervisors meetings.

Over the years, we’ve seen the media criticize these very same critics as the same group that spoke, and still speaks, at SLO County Board of Supervisors meetings week after week. Traditionally, we disagreed with the repeated castigation of those individuals because we always held onto the benefit of the doubt — that maybe, just maybe, there was legitimacy to their arguments. They complained bitterly every step of the process — and as democracy would have it, rightfully so — but offered only solutions that County Public Works resoundingly dismissed. Instead, we sought the opinion of wastewater experts and engineers in The ROCK, to bring the weight of science, engineering and professionals in their fields into Los Osos. But even their scientific and academic expertise was sullied by the arguments that echoed around the chamber walls, however understandable considering the acute frustration suffered by Los Osos residents at the County’s resolute silence towards their predicament.

While all of this was happening, the sewer critics fought among themselves. They cannibalized each other. They fought for power and position in the community, and they fought with a vengeance. They argued childishly among themselves over the worthiness of legal initiatives, relationships and associations.

“Nobody should donate to the lawsuit! The person orchestrating it is a liar and a thief.”

That is an actual quote from one sewer critic to another. There are many, many lines that were exchanged between critics whose supposed focus was to advocate for an environmentally and economically sustainable sewer project. The public never saw that. They only saw the speakers who came to public comment with their issues, armed with corrections, research, revelations, threats and misguided angst: an embarrassing sideshow that completely misrepresents the social dynamics of Los Osos.

As a result, Los Osos, apart from the public comment histronics, has been relatively easy territory for the County to conquer, primarily because Los Osos’ post-recall leadership of 2006 supported the Proposition 218 vote of 2007 to tax residents for the sewer. This still-active old guard coterie of leaders promoted to the community that the County offered the best chance for the best project to rise to the top. These linchpin decisions by Los Osos’ dysfunctional leadership proved to be an unmitigated disaster with ominous near-term and long-term consequences for thousands of Los Osos homeowners. The fact that some of the most independent minds in Los Osos’ couldn’t organize to vote no on the Prop 218 vote and couldn’t mobilize broad public support for any serious counter measure to the County’s sewer plan explains why the community was rather easily led astray to back the County’s $200 million sewer with limited opposition.

Once the majority vote approved the assessment, the die was cast against an affordable, sustainable sewer project the community could live with, and critics began to lose their general influence, if not their control, except for pockets of the community.

The fragmentation of the community has aided and abetted the sewer. And who can say for sure that it wasn’t planned that way? Failure of leadership requires a failure of “followship” in order to be a successful failure, and Los Osos has more than enough followers who won’t or can’t think for themselves or act independently, or who are too weak, frail and timid to say otherwise in a small town where intimidation, innuendo and false information are how people are controlled.

This brings us full circle to why you will not see that interview with the elderly couple from Los Osos. They are too unwise, too manipulated and too frightened not to do what they’re told by their trusted town centurions who consistently prioritize power over people. That’s the gambit in Los Osos. And where has it gotten them?

So we apologize for what’s not here — an interview that clearly reveals the impact of the County’s sewer project on fixed-income seniors, an interview that Los Osos’ old guard leadership, County supporters and lazy “activists” don’t want you to see because it’s too real. Fear and failed leadership have a strong grip on Los Osos as the sewer comes to town, and nothing can stand in its way, not even an interview with two seniors eager to talk to The ROCK. That’s why we believe they suddenly, without any credible explanation, pulled the plug on the story everyone in and out of Los Osos needs to know.

Nothing must stop the sewer, certainly not a bucket of hot rivets from The ROCK. Silly, isn’t it?

Divided they stand, divided they fall, all for one, one for all: It’s just a shame that this cynical philosophy of self-aggrandizement, division and greed has taken a lot of innocent homeowners to the end of the line in Los Osos who didn’t take that oath.