To reduce the number of sick, frail, and mentally ill people tossed out on the streets April 1, a narrowly divided city Planning Commission granted a Casa Esperanza homeless shelter an emergency extension for some of its winter residents. The extension allows 40 additional people-all of them participants in the shelter’s transitional housing program-to remain through spring. But even with the commission’s decision, at least 50 of the shelter’s current residents will be seeking other accommodations this week.
Typically, Casa Esperanza houses up to 200 people a night throughout the winter months, whether or not they’re involved in programs to achieve sobriety, employment, or permanent housing. But every year, on March 31, the shelter has closed its closes to all but 100 participants in transitional services.
The planning commission’s action-which was protested by nine nearby property owners and business operators-will increase the number of transitional residents at the Casa to 140. Casa Esperanza Director Mike Foley argued that a genuine emergency exists on the South Coast, noting that 13 homeless people have died in the first three months of this year. “Two have been murdered, and their killers remain on the loose,” he said. By contrast, he said, 18 died in all of 2008.
In addition, the Salvation Army closed its 86-bed detox facility in Carpinteria on March 31, leaving a gaping whole in rehabilitation services for the indigent. “That leaves us 12 detox beds for the entire region,” Foley exclaimed. (The Salvation Army has relocated all but 25 of the 86 individuals receiving rehab services in Carpinteria to detox centers it operates from San Francisco to San Diego.)
Neighboring business and property owners-including John Dixon of Tri-County Produce, who sits on the Casa Esperanza board—argued that the people associated with the shelter have placed an undue burden on them and their neighborhood. They complained of public defecation, urination, aggressive panhandling, intoxication, and drug dealing, among other things. In these hard economic times, they argued, it was unfair to expect them to handle more. Commissioners John Jostes and Charmaine Jacobs agreed, and voted against the extension. Commissioners Addison Thompson and Sheila Lodge-a former mayor-argued that such problem behavior would be eased, not exacerbated, by sheltering people for another 90 days. Wouldn’t it be worse for the neighbors, they asked, if these people were on the streets with no place to go? Commissioner Bendy White-now running for City Council-expressed much internal turmoil on the matter, ultimately voting for the extension, but with conditions.
Many of the problems associated with Casa Esperanza may, in fact, stem from its free lunch program, which serves about 200 people a day. Many of the beneficiaries of this program do not sleep at the shelter. Foley conceded the lunch program might be attracting some of the individuals causing problems for the shelter’s neighbors. He said the Fielding Institute was already studying the extent to which the shelter’s nighttime residents are showing up on police crime reports as compared to lunchtime visitors. He also agreed to a condition, insisted upon by White, that the shelter branch its lunchtime feeding operations throughout the city. “Will we stop helping hungry people in the middle of the second great depression,” Foley asked. “No. Are we willing to create a scattered site program that might relieve pressure on lower Milpas and other neighborhoods as well? Absolutely.”
Since taking over management of Casa Esperanza four years ago, Foley has sought to address neighborhood concern by a get-tough approach with residents, stressing results over compassion. Those who do not comply with the Casa Esperanza code of conduct are asked to leave. This approach has sparked no shortage of criticism within the community of homeless activists and caregivers, who have complained that Foley’s rules have subjected homeless women, in particular, to risk. Foley countered that he has never expels anyone outright, always providing specific conditions under which they can return. He stated that in the past six months, 86 people have been asked to leave the shelter. Of those, he said, 42 eventually returned, and of those, 27 found permanent housing. Foley has at his fingertips an impressive array of facts and figures to suggest Casa Esperanza is more than just another pretty flop house. Last year, he claimed, Casa personnel helped 295 of its 1,144 guests find permanent housing, and in the past eight months, helped 180 find jobs. Six months later, he said, 70-to-80 percent are still working and still living indoors.
While Foley expressed sympathy for business owners struggling with the behavior of street people, he noted that police have reported a 26 percent drop in homeless-related street crime in the area. Massive sweeps conducted by city police in the past year-of TV Hill, the creeks, the beaches, and downtown-have moved homeless people into the Milpas corridor in large numbers, he said. As long as City Hall responds to the homeless by moving them from one part of town to the next, he said, certain neighborhoods will always have cause for complaint. He embraced the 12-point program recently adopted by the City Council because, he said, it articulated for the first time a citywide strategy of law enforcement combined with improved social services and law enforcement.