Like many impactful initiatives, the City of Atascadero’s Orange Bag program began with a simple interaction between two people.
While participating in a community clean-up, City Manager Rachelle Rickard noticed a homeless person living on an island in the middle of Atascadero Creek. His encampment was littered with trash. When she offered to throw him a bag into which he could discard the debris, he responded, sure, that would be nice.
That engagement planted the seed for a continuing program that provides regular trash service for unhoused residents. Kiosks throughout the city, filled with orange garbage bags, invite homeless individuals to gather and throw away their trash. The bags, whose carrot-bright color provides an eye-catching signal that they contain waste to be discarded, are collected daily by Atascadero’s public works staff.
“For our unhoused residents who like to keep their areas really neat and tidy, that orange bag can be a lifeline,” said Rickard.
In addition to affording people experiencing homelessness the opportunity to live in a neater, cleaner space, the Orange Bag program aligns with the city’s responsibility to keep public spaces clean and free of dangerous conditions.
“While individuals who are unhoused or transient may inadvertently present potential hazards, such as needles or broken bottles, the Orange Bag program helps reduce those risks,” said California Joint Powers Insurance Authority (California JPIA) Senior Risk Manager Tim Karcz. “The program exemplifies how the people who live and work in Atascadero take pride in keeping the city clean, safe, and beautiful.”
Founded in 1913 and incorporated in 1979, the City of Atascadero, a community of 30,000 residents located along U.S. Route 101 in San Luis Obispo County, fosters an outstanding quality of life for its residents by providing excellent public service, stewarding its environment, preserving its heritage, and promoting economic prosperity.
Bordered by the Salinas River and home to Atascadero Lake, Atascadero Creek, and Green Valley Creek—the Spanish word atascadero loosely translates to “wetland”—Atascadero’s ravines connect the mountains to the ocean.
While plentiful fresh water and award-winning parks accentuate the community’s charm, they also contribute to opportune conditions for unhoused individuals.
“Atascadero Creek has steep embankments and is heavily wooded; the Salinas River also features woods and sand dunes,” said City Manager Rachelle Rickard. “It is very easy for people to live on those lands undisturbed.”
“Atascadero’s City Hall is a famous historic building in front of a large park area,” added Karcz. “It can appear to be a haven for individuals in an unhoused state.”
Atascadero’s 2022 Point in Time Count showed 93 homeless individuals, 42 of whom were sheltered, and 51 of whom were unsheltered. The community’s resources include El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO), headquartered in Atascadero, a two-facility, 120-bed homeless organization whose mission is to empower people in San Luis Obispo County to make positive change by providing food, shelter, and supportive services such as job and life-skill training.
“ECHO has a strong outreach component, with crisis assessment teams (CAT) that pair police officers with mental health specialists to connect with and offer support for specific individuals,” said Rickard.
For example, she continued, CAT representatives began bringing one homeless person coffee and medication every morning. Their regular visits and treatment helped manage the individual’s mental health crisis, which reduced his socially inappropriate and illegal behaviors. After three months, he was ready to engage with ECHO’s onsite programming.
“What works for one person may not work for another person,” said Rickard, who frequently speaks with homeless people who live near City Hall. “The more we can understand each individual’s needs, the more likely we are to help them get into a program that will eventually get them out of experiencing homelessness.”
Rickard, a 30-year resident of Atascadero, joined the city staff in February 1997 from the Santa Maria office of accounting firm Moss, Levy & Hartzheim, where she specialized in audits of governmental entities and non-profit agencies. Rickard led audit teams for 13 cities, 14 special districts, 21 school districts, and 26 non-profit agencies, preparing financial statements and presenting audits to governing boards. She holds a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
After beginning her career with the City of Atascadero as an accountant, Rickard was promoted as the youngest and the first female director of administrative services. Responsible for financial planning and reporting, accounting, and other financial matters—as well as risk management, litigation, workers’ compensation, personnel, negotiations, regulatory compliance, and contract review—she introduced a comprehensive financial plan that, over ten years, pivoted the city’s general fund from a deficit unreserved fund balance to an $11 million reserve.
Rickard also led the funding, planning, and construction of Atascadero’s $34 million Historic City Hall Project, securing $16 million in grant funds from CalEMA and FEMA and $2.2 million in California Cultural and Historical Endowment funds.
After several opportunities to serve as acting city manager, she was appointed city manager in June 2013.
“There’s no doubt that Rachelle is a stellar city manager who has been a consistent leadership force on the Central Coast for more than 20 years,” said Karcz.
Rickard cultivates a risk management culture among her staff by pausing to think about potential risks as part of every discussion. She recognizes the liability associated with serving the community and considers options to minimize risk without sacrificing service: she strives for a reasonable protection level, not a perfect one.
“You don’t want risk management to be paralyzing,” she said, “but you do want to take reasonable precautions to mitigate risk.”
Rickard credits the California JPIA as a resource for finding that balance, partnering with staff to assess situations, and minimizing exposure to the most practical extent.
“The California JPIA’s regional risk manager program is a huge benefit,” said Rickard. “I—or anyone on my staff—can call Tim and ask a question any time. Having that perspective helps a ton.”
Providing innovative risk management solutions for its public agency partners for more than 40 years, the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority (California JPIA) is one of the largest municipal self-insurance pools in the state, with more than 120 member cities and other governmental agencies. Members actively participate in shaping the organization to provide important coverage for their operations. The California JPIA provides innovative risk management solutions through a comprehensive portfolio of programs and services, including liability, workers’ compensation, pollution, property, and earthquake coverage, as well as extensive training and loss control services. For more information, please visit the California JPIA’s website at cjpia.org.