Directors of Santa Barbara’s financially troubled Case Esperanza homeless shelter didn’t just get a harsh dose of “tough love” from the county supervisors on Tuesday, they got seriously spanked. Even so, the supervisors unanimously approved changes to the shelter’s 60-year covenant with the County of Santa Barbara, which will allow the cash-strapped Casa to cut costly services without putting at risk the shelter’s $500,000 interest-free, no-payback loan from the county.
But before that vote, the supervisors expressed frustration at being notified of the Casa’s dire circumstances so late in the game and took exception to shelter supporters who said they felt “abandoned” by elected officials, like Supervisor Salud Carbajal, who stepped off the organization’s board. (Carbajal resigned to avoid a conflict of interest for serving on a board that receives county funding, explaining that could be “a little awkward.”) Likewise, the supervisors bristled at the suggestion of some Casa supporters — like June Sochel of the Gildea Foundation — that the city and county governments needed to re-double their efforts on behalf of the homeless and for the shelter.
A surprised Supervisor Steve Lavagnino was expecting “a mea culpa, if you will” from Casa advocates, but explained, “Instead, what I heard we need to step up.” Carbajal added, “I hate to break it to you, but county government is never going to do everything and it’s never going to do enough.”
For Casa director Mike Foley, Tuesday’s verbal shellacking was salt in an already raw wound. Over the past several months, he and his board have been re-writing the shelter’s core mission and the cuts have been exceptionally painful. Not only has the Casa eliminated its day drop-in center — effective this Tuesday — but it cut its satellite food program in Isla Vista. More fundamentally, the Casa is now pursuing a new policy of requiring its residents to stay sober while there, which hasn’t always been the case. Many wonder where the non-sober will go this winter when the Casa begins operating at its maximum capacity of 200 people a night, but the changed policy may open new funding opportunities.
The question is whether the shelter — begun in 1999 by a coalition of business, government, and religious leaders — can stay afloat until that happens. In the past five years, the shelter has borrowed nearly $2.2 million to maintain the current level of operations, and this year’s budget is nearly $2 million less than it was two years ago. The shelter is in the midst of an emergency $300,000 fundraising drive, which Foley said has generated $192,000 with two weeks to go.
All was not strictly dollars and cents on Tuesday. Linda Miller, who’s stayed at Casa in the past, predicted a spike in aggressive panhandling, illegal camping, and dumpster diving due to the cuts. “It’s appalling anyone has to do without food,” she said. Another homeless woman complained that the waiting list for subsidized housing was six years long, lamenting, “Six years is a long time to be on the streets.” And many others urged the supervisors to remember most of the homeless were women and children, not the people panhandling on street corners.
Foley is hoping to sell the Casa property to an undisclosed third-party non-profit, which in turn will lease the Casa back to the shelter. The proceeds would help pay off much of the shelter’s accrued debt. County auditor Bob Geis expressed skepticism at this plan, and the supervisors worried that such a sale would leave their $500,000 loan unsecured and uncollateralized. But the point was moot, because the load was made with the clear expectation that the money would never be paid back and that no interest would ever be charged. In exchange, the shelter was supposed to provide a range of shelter services — including the day drop-in center — through 2059. “We’ve already lost our $500,000,” said Geis. “That’s the story. It is what it is.”
In the end, the supervisors voted to change the Casa’s covenant language to allow the elimination of the drop-in center over the next 46 years. This leaves intact the interest-free and forgivable provisions of the $500,000, which in turn, will facilitate the eventual sale of the property. Supervisors Lavagino and Peter Adam were skeptical the Casa could be saved, saying “Good luck,” to Foley and his supporters. Supervisor Doreen Farr lamented the loss of program, terming the damage inflicted to the safety net “huge.” And while supervisor Carbajal was clearly frustrated, he understood there was no choice. “Who are we fooling?” he asked. “We can’t provide this service for the community.”