PASO ROBLES — People sit at portable tables under a lighted canopy, eat dinner, chat with one another, and smile as cars drive by on Riverside Avenue and 24th Street.

It’s a scene that repeats itself each evening at the Paso Cares managed Peoples’ Kitchen.

“You get to know all of these folks. You find out their stories,” said Jack Phillips, Paso Cares volunteer and treasurer. “You find out that probably half of them grew up in Paso Robles or had some connection to Paso Robles. This was their home. They are real people.”

The buffet-style dinner begins promptly at 5 p.m. with the ringing of the triangle dinner bell and is served until 6 p.m. People — some on bicycles, some on foot and some in cars filled with their belongings — begin gathering outside of the Paso Cares’ shipping container at about 4:30 p.m.

Getting through this together, Paso Robles

“This is a small way to use the resources that God has given us,” Phillips said. “We are definitely meeting some tangible physical needs on a nightly basis. And that is really good.”

Paso Cares is a corporate nonprofit with a volunteer board and nearly 100 volunteers. Tony Ritter, owner of Ritter Construction, is the current board president.

According to the Paso Cares website, their goal is to provide “for the needs of the homeless population of our community. We are volunteers who together share a vision of providing food, clothing, and shelter for our fellow citizens in need. We are leaders willing to stand hand in hand to make sure the needs of each individual are met.”

Phillips has been with Paso Cares since its inception back in the spring of 2012. At that time, local churches and other organizations were doing what they could to help. Homeless advocate Ernie Miller wanted to get everyone involved working together and began holding monthly meetings in 2012 that eventually led to the formation of Paso Cares in 2013.

“Of course, then it was just a loose group of people,” Phillips said. “We had that first meeting in May. We met for about a year trying to organize and the focus was on housing. And not so much food or dinners.”

From 2015 to 2019, Paso Cares operated a warming shelter from roughly Nov. 1 to March 31, contingent on the weather. When the overnight temperature was expected to dip below 40 degrees Fahrenheit or if there was a 50 percent chance of rain in the forecast, Paso Cares opened the warming shelter for the night.

Area churches were used for the warming shelters, rotating nightly and limited to only 12-15 people per night.

“We’d pick people up right after dinner and take them to the church,” said Phillips. “We had self-inflating air mattresses, sleeping bags, snacks and cleaning supplies and all of that jazz. They would be there for the night and we’d get them up the next morning to return them to the dinner site.”

Sometime in 2017, Paso Cares took a leap and began serving a meal year-round, moving the Peoples’ Kitchen from Second Baptist Church to the location across the street from the Paso Robles Event Center. Dinner was served Monday through Friday by Paso Cares.

Food for the Paso Cares dinners is provided mostly by North County churches, but several businesses, groups and individuals also prepare dishes.

In 2020, the nightly dinner became to-go only due to the COVID-19 pandemic for a couple of months. When guidelines allowed for sit-down dinners to resume, Paso Cares and the El Camino Homeless Organization partnered to provide meals seven days a week.

Along with the meal, Paso Cares expanded its hygiene kits, containing basic needs such as shampoo, dental items, and socks to include hand sanitizer and face masks.

ECHO will be running the 50-room transitional and emergency homeless shelter in Paso Robles. Paso Cares will have a prominent role within its walls.

“What we are probably going to be doing is providing some support services and the dinner program will move there,” said Phillips. “We will see how that all works out.”

Paso Cares is always accepting donations and in need of volunteers. To learn more, visit pasocares.org or call (805)712-4710.