NOT SO FUNNY, MR. CLAUS: Although there are still 18 shopping days before Christmas, the overwhelming frontrunner in this year’s Scrooge Award contest is the Bridgehouse Homeless Shelter up the road in the fair city of Lompoc. Not only did Bridgehouse operators reject a surprise donation of 13 unused bunk beds, 26 mattresses, and attendant bed coverings, but they had the beds-and some of the mattresses-dumped at the Lompoc landfill. Not only that, but they never called other shelter operators to see if anyone else could use the beds. Furthermore, the shelter operators called the Sheriff on the 20 volunteers-an impressive hodgepodge of Lompoc’s sweetest church ladies and angriest hell-raisers-who delivered the beds two weeks ago with the hope of assembling them then and there.
Motivating the shelter officials in this insanity was their long-running feud with Liann Noble, the former county child welfare worker who orchestrated the bed donation drive in the first place. Noble incurred the wrath of Bridgehouse-and its politically connected Board of Directors-when she tried to sneak in one night last year with her 10-year-old son for the purpose of writing a first-hand guest editorial for the Lompoc Record about what services the shelter did, and did not, provide. Lompoc is a small town where everyone knows everyone, so predictably, Noble was recognized and asked to leave. But not so predictably, she was fired from her county job.
With that unhappy history, it’s easy to understand how the shelter might regard the delivery of Noble’s large and unsolicited gift as a Trojan Horse. It’s one thing for the Bridgehouse managers to look a gift horse in the mouth. But in the process, they also shortchanged countless homeless women and children who stood to benefit from the donation, no matter how ulterior the motives behind it may have been. And the fallout from the Bridgehouse fiasco is hardly confined to Lompoc. In Santa Barbara, the operators of the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter on Cacique Street, for example, have postponed their seasonal sock and blanket drive, fearing the bad taste the story has conjured might dampen donations.
This unhappy story starts with Noble, a 42-year-old firecracker who moved to California from Iowa when she was 19, and to Lompoc seven years ago to take a job with the county’s Child Welfare Services. Noble arrived at the post with a graduate degree in advocacy social work under her belt and about 13 years of real-life job experience. By all accounts she was a model employee. In short order, Noble earned a reputation for being a relentless investigator and tireless advocate who was not averse to rocking the boat or squeaking the wheel. If at times Noble was a pain in the ass, she countered, “A lot of change in the world hasn’t happened because you’re trying to please people.” Although burdened with this decidedly un-bureaucratic temperament, Noble was a rising star. In response to Lompoc’s meth epidemic, she successfully conspired with Lompoc police sergeant Chuck Strange and his wife, Cindy, to create Lompoc’s first substance abuse task force. Out of that task force came a desperately needed detox program for Lompoc’s legion of meth mommies. In the course of her work, Noble frequently found herself at Bridgehouse-which opened four years ago-interviewing parents and children in the throes of family crisis.
Bridgehouse is owned by the Lompoc Housing and Community Development Corporation, a private nonprofit that provides affordable housing and homeless services on one hand and develops high profile commercial projects in downtown Lompoc on the other. For example, Lompoc Housing has the multimillion-dollar contract to revamp Lompoc’s historic movie theater and redevelop the property next to the theater. On its board sit some of the biggest contractors in the Lompoc Valley as well as 4th District Supervisor Joni Gray‘s executive assistant, Susan Warnstrom.
Throughout the years, Noble developed good relations with Bridgehouse’s staff. But she was always troubled by the fact that the women and children seeking shelter there had to sleep on what were described as “old prison cots,” while the men enjoyed the sanctuary of semi-private rooms furnished with beds. For Noble, the problem goes beyond equity and fairness. She claims homeless women and their kids are staying away from Bridgehouse in droves because the cots are so uncomfortable and also because of the relative lack of privacy. As they spend what little money they have on motels, she argued, these families squander the precious and limited resources that might eventually help them secure permanent accommodations. All this adds stress to already fractured and sometimes violent families. And as a child welfare worker, Noble knows the pain inflicted when children are removed-often forever-from abusive parents. If Bridgehouse provided beds instead of cots for the women and children, she reckoned, maybe a few families might manage to stay together.
Noble claims she frequently discussed this with the Bridgehouse staff. She never discussed the matter, however, with its director, Tracey Taylor, or Lompoc Housing Executive Sue Ehrlich. Nor did she ever approach the Board of Directors. Instead, Noble opted to call attention to the issue by spending a night at the shelter with her son to see what it was like. Her experience was to be grist for a guest opinion piece she’d write for the Lompoc paper. She managed to get into Bridgehouse-using a false name and ID-September 23, 2006, only after Lompoc’s Sergeant Strange called Bridgehouse asking them to take her in. Noble was found out when she asked why there was no toilet paper in any of the bathroom stalls. It turned out the toilet paper was locked up, Noble said, and when the person with the key showed up, he recognized her. Noble and her son were then asked to leave and did so.
Fighting the Fire
Ehrlich was apoplectic that anyone would dare infiltrate her shelter. On September 25, she wrote a letter to County Human Resources Director Sue Paul all but demanding that Noble be decapitated and her severed head posted in a public place for all to see. In her letter, Ehrlich charged Noble had been “unprofessional, dishonest, and possibly criminal” and expressed incredulity that the county could have such a person on its payroll. Ehrlich faxed her letter to Paul, but not from her own fax machine. Instead, she sent it from the machine in Supervisor Gray’s office. Paul-an astute practitioner of hardball politics-could not have missed the return address. Not long afterward, Noble received an official letter notifying her that she’d been terminated by the County of Santa Barbara, effective December 31, 2006.
From where I sit, Noble was certifiably crazy to think she could hope to sneak into the shelter without getting caught. But I would have applauded her for showing such initiative. Given all the county revenues that have kept Bridgehouse open and operating, I think the taxpayers are entitled to an independent assessment of the services we’re paying for. As obnoxious as Bridgehouse might find this, its management should actually welcome such intrusions. They just might find out something they didn’t already know.
Noble appealed her termination to the county’s Civil Service Commission. She argued she notified her supervisor in advance and was not warned against it. She insisted there’s nothing in county policy that restricts what she does on her own time. And, she added, she was not on the county clock at the time of her offense. The commission-made up of a retired air force colonel, a retired building contractor, and a former Santa Maria city councilmember-concluded that the county grossly overreacted in firing Noble. They concluded she should have been suspended for two months without pay-not fired-and given back her job. For the record, the county rarely fires anybody, even when they deserve it. In those instances when employees appeal to the Civil Service Commission, they almost always lose. That makes all this unusual in the extreme. Making it even more so, the county has since appealed the commission’s decision no less than three times. For its efforts, the county has been rebuffed twice. But the latest appeal is still pending, and Noble remains out of work.
This October, Noble decided to celebrate the anniversary of her termination by launching a bed drive for the shelter. She claims she thought the shelter couldn’t afford the beds, so she’d take care of that. She got the beds and mattresses-13 bunk beds-from oil giant PXP, and estimated they would have cost $350 apiece. She claimed the beds-which had been purchased for PXP’s offshore oil rigs-were in “pristine” condition and had never been used.
Shelter director Taylor said she prefers cots to beds because cots can be more easily rearranged to meet the ever-shifting tides of shelter visitors. Beds are harder to move around, she said, and they take up more space. If Bridgehouse used beds instead of cots, Taylor said, it couldn’t serve as many people. But the beds that Noble collected were bunk beds, not regular beds. Although most shelters-like Santa Maria’s Good Samaritan Shelter or Santa Barbara’s Casa Esperanza-use bunk beds, Taylor said she worries they could pose a safety problem for residents who are sometimes too drunk, stoned, disoriented, or young to be able to navigate the top bunk without peril.
Taylor complained that Noble’s confederates first called to announce the beds were coming just two hours before actual delivery. And, she charged, no one ever asked for permission to drop off the beds. But more than that, Taylor claimed the beds were no good. They were too rusty, she said. “How rusty?” I asked her several times. Just rusty. She also claimed the mattresses were filthy. Taylor said Bridgehouse called the Salvation Army and Goodwill to see if they were interested in the beds. She acknowledged she never called any other shelters. If they weren’t good enough for Bridgehouse residents, she asked, why would they be good enough for anyone else’s?
Not having seen the beds myself, I can’t say for sure. But I have my doubts. According to second- and third-hand sources, the beds were said to be in great shape. Given that PXP has two very controversial projects in the pipeline-one an offshore oil development and the other a plan to build 5,000 homes in the outskirts of Lompoc-I can’t imagine the company being so stupid that it would donate obviously shoddy goods, even if for the homeless. Adding to my skepticism, Ehrlich reportedly emailed Casa Esperanza-which, by the way, is looking for 66 new mattresses-that after determining that PXP was the donor, she’s decided to keep some of the filthy mattresses.
In the meantime, the homeless women and children at Bridgehouse are still sleeping on cots while the men are sleeping in beds. Liann Noble is still fuming. She bitterly resents the insinuation-or outright accusation-that she was nuts to think Bridgehouse would accept any beds that she helped collect. “If that’s crazy,” she said, “then I’m one crazy gal.” In the meantime, everyone else better watch out because Santa Claus is coming. Just not to Lompoc.