CRAZY IS AS CRAZY DOES: Two people I’ve made it my policy not to mess with are the “Reverend” Hank Drost and Mike Foley. Both subscribe to bad-ass variants of that whole “so as you do to the least of my brothers you do unto me” Christian Compassion Thing — popularized most recently by Stephen Colbert in his testimony before Congress. Both do amazing work feeding the poor.
But hat’s not why I steer clear. They’re both scary serious, and in some instances, seriously scary. Certainly neither ever heard about turning the other cheek, and in recent days, Drost and Foley — who operate separately out of parallel universes — have come to feel under attack by business and political interests angry about the growing numbers of homeless people on our streets.
For more than 20 years, Drost — an insurance agent by day — has been running what’s known as the “Hank Show” on the waterfront every Sunday morning down by Pershing Park, feeding about 150 to 200 street people, passing out shirts, socks, shoelaces, toothpaste, mouthwash, and various other sundries. Drost — a former judo champion who insists that he is, in fact, the Biblical Prophet Daniel — does all this out of his own pocket. Daniel is most famous for getting chucked in the lion’s den, but best remembered for over-the-top apocalyptic visions that, in a contemporary context, might have called for psychotropic medications. Like Daniel, Drost is a little quick on the apocalyptic trigger for my comfort. When city officials threatened a few years back to move the Hank Show to a location far from the tourist crowds — at the instigation of some waterfront hotel owners — Hank notified the Powers-That-Be that if he was molested in any way, Santa Barbara would be wiped off the face of the map no later than 5 a.m. the following Monday. This particular showdown took place on a Super Bowl weekend. Given that I had bets on the game, I was much relieved city leaders saw fit not to call Hank’s bluff. I am hoping any business interests upset by the Hank Show will have the wisdom to do likewise. It’s a battle they can’t hope to win.
Foley, by contrast, is quick to never share any mystical thoughts he might harbor. Ruthlessly rational, Foley has run the Casa Esperanza Homeless Shelter off Milpas Street by the train tracks the past several years. On any given day, Foley can count on getting chewed out by clients who insist he’s an insensitive, power-hungry control freak. After that, he’ll get an earful from nearby business owners, who charge — as one described it to me — that the shelter is a “five-star magnet that’s attracting some very bad people to the neighborhood.” So far as I know, Mike does not go home and kick the dog. But when it comes to the mental health bureaucrats not dealing with the influx of psychologically damaged people walking the streets, he has elevated verbal flagellation to a new art form.
With the shelter’s Conditional Use Permit coming up for review by the Planning Commission next month , Foley’s freaking because three members of the City Council — that’s one short of a majority — have already notified him they don’t approve of the free lunch the Casa serves to about 200 street people a day. According to Casa’s critics, the free lunch draws an unhealthy concentration of street drunks, dope dealers, screaming nutballs, foul-mouthed panhandlers, and public defecators to the neighborhood. But Foley counters it’s the offer of a free lunch — which typically consists of a meat stew, potatoes, cooked vegetables, salad, and bread — that often persuades those distrustful of the system to take the first step that ultimately leads to recovery. Or as Foley’s kitchen manager Jose Figueroa put it, “In the seven years I’ve been here, I’ve seen a lot of people get on their feet. I’ve seen people make it happen. Everything starts with the lunch. It acts like the carrot.”
Foley doesn’t pretend there isn’t a problem in the neighborhood; he contends the shelter’s getting scapegoated. When city cops chase the homeless from State Street, from the creeks, from the railroad tracks, and off of TV Hill, where do you think they’re going to go? That we’re still in the midst of the recession that we’ve only just learned officially ended last year only makes matters worse. As do the funding cuts to a mental health bureaucracy never known for its streamlined efficiency.
Adding fuel to the fire, the Police Department has just released a report indicating that there’s been a 6,200-percent increase in reported crime since the Casa opened its doors 10 years ago. But as one cop familiar with police statistics told me, that hyper-ventilated figure is based on the fact that there are 62 calls for service a year from the shelter. Before the shelter existed, there were none. The place was a vacant furniture warehouse.
Police brass contend that reports of their utter lack of enforcement down at Rainbow Park — frequently leveled by Foley and Milpas business owners — are greatly exaggerated. But they also contend law enforcement is an inefficient tool for such problems. Besides, when you can’t put people in jail, you have no credible threat. And when the cops targeted nearby liquor stores for enforcement action — it’s against the law to sell to visibly intoxicated customers — the state Alcoholic Beverage Control board refused to process the cases. If the cops posing as drunks weren’t actually inebriated, it turns out no law had been violated by selling them booze.
At the end of the day, Foley said, City Hall promised to provide the police presence needed to keep the neighborhood safe when the council approved the shelter. For the City of Santa Barbara — which markets itself as an urban icon of care-free luxury — to shut down the only daytime soup kitchen in town won’t look so good. It will look even worse when hundreds of people, now both hungry and mentally ill, are sent streaming throughout the city looking for food. Like I say, I make a point not to mess with Mike Foley.
The folks at City Hall should do likewise.