Much to the consternation of some homeless advocates and Lompoc city officials, Santa Barbara County executive Chandra Wallar is urging the Board of Supervisors not to accept the 56-bed Bridgehouse Homeless Shelter, which was abruptly shut down January 17 by the Lompoc Housing Community Development Corporation, now in the throes of bankruptcy. The supervisors are scheduled to deliberate over what, if anything, can be done to reopen the shelter, and Wallar’s recommendation caught many by surprise.
Wallar argued that it falls well outside the county’s mission to either own or operate a homeless shelter. She also noted that the gap between what the county is prepared to pay — $75,000 — and what operators of Santa Maria’s Good Samaritan shelter would charge to run Bridgehouse — $250,000 a year — is too big. Wallar suggested the county could work with other interested parties to find both a short-term and long-term solution to Bridgehouse, but strongly urged the supervisors not to accept the shelter and the four acres it sits upon outside the city limits of Lompoc.
The county supervisors were officially notified in November that many of Lompoc Housing’s properties were being foreclosed upon. Given that the county had provided the initial $1 million to purchase the Bridgehouse shelter and holds a substantial loan on the property, the county is a direct party of interest. After Lompoc Housing abruptly shut down its two Lompoc shelters in January — giving occupants just four days to find other accommodations — county officials initiated talks that indicated it intended to take over the shelter property.
First, it took steps to receive the real estate in the form of an in-lieu deed. Then it solicited bids from other shelter operators to take over management. With that history, those paying attention to the county’s response found themselves mystified by the sudden about-face. Only Good Samaritan out of Santa Maria responded. Good Samaritan also took over management of Mark’s House, Lompoc Housing’s transitional shelter that was also shut down in January. But with Mark’s House, the City of Lompoc — which had invested heavily in its creation and funding — took over the property.
This development was greeted with great concern in the City of Lompoc, where the loss of the Bridgehouse shelter has been most acutely felt. Much of the slack had been taken up when a local church agreed to open a temporary warming shelter. But warming shelters, by design, are temporary bare-bones operations.
Lompoc’s Human Services Commission was notified of the county’s direction shift Wednesday night, and Commissioner Carol Benham — also a columnist with the Lompoc Record who has aggressively bird-dogged the collapse of Lompoc Housing — expressed great surprise and chagrin. “It’s not Lompoc’s mission to own and run a shelter either, but we’re doing it,” Benham said. “It’s definitely part of the county’s mission to take care of the homeless, and without Bridgehouse, there’s going to be a big gap in services in the Lompoc Valley.” Benham argued the county was the most responsible agency given the fact that the shelter is located in county jurisdiction and the county had helped fund it over the years. Likewise, Cecelia Martner, a Lompoc city councilmember, expressed vexation with Wallar’s recommendation. “They talk about getting together for some interim plan and some long term plan, but the fact is they have no plan,” she said.
Compounding matters, the county supervisor representing Lompoc — Joni Gray — has been notified she cannot participate in any supervisorial deliberations because she has a conflict of interest. Gray’s lawfirm has represented Lompoc Housing over the years, and her husband, now retired, was their main attorney for a long time. In addition, Gray’s chief of staff, Susan Warnstrom, served on the Lompoc Housing board for nearly 20 years and only just resigned after serving as its president.