Santa Barbara’s biggest homeless shelter, Casa Esperanza, hit another milestone this week in its new seismic shift toward imposing sobriety requirements on its residents. The new rules started April 1 when Casa announced that all residential participants in transitional programs had to stay off drugs and alcohol. This Thursday, Casa took it up another notch, requiring that any homeless people discharged from Cottage Hospital to any of the 10 beds Cottage reserves for recuperating homeless patients at Casa must agree to remain clean and sober. By December 1 — when the shelter is operating at full capacity of 200 beds a night — anyone staying there will be expected to abide by such rules.
This marks a major departure in policy and practice; for the past 14 years, Casa Esperanza has operated both as a one-stop shop offering a wide range of services designed to aid transition from the streets as well as a de facto homeless warehouse that took all people regardless of their condition so long as their behavior was not too disruptive. Driving the change is a growing awareness that that these diverse functions cannot coexist fruitfully under one roof. The presence of people getting drunk and stoned makes it much harder for many people already on the edge to make their way off the streets.
Also driving the policy change are the organizations that fund shelters throughout the country. They want programs that get more people off the streets faster; programs that don’t offer this don’t get funded. (The Casa has had to borrow funds to provide the current level of services and that, said Casa director Mike Foley, is not economically sustainable. With the recession lifting, he said, there’s also been a shift away from homeless funding by many philanthropic donors.) In this vein, Foley said there are increased funding opportunities for shelters able to transition people out of homelessness. Key to many such grant applications are sobriety rules.
Many in the nonprofit world dealing with the homeless, the mentally ill, and the addicted worry what will become of the people turned away from the shelter during the dead of winter because of the new requirements. “The short and long answer is we don’t know,” said Foley. He estimated that only half the people served by the Casa have addiction issues, but if only one-quarter refuses to abide by the new rules, 20-40 people will be seeking shelter elsewhere. Taking up some of the slack will be the loose confederation of warming shelters operated out of churches throughout the county when it’s wet and cold. Foley added the new policy will not be enforced with a zero-tolerance rigidity. For those who slip, additional resources will be offered before they’re asked to leave.
Foley added that the free lunches offered by the Casa’s Community Kitchen will continue to serve any and all comers — regardless of their intoxication — but that only people who refrain will be allowed to stay at the Casa’s Day Center past the 45-minute lunch period.