<b>NO FREE LUNCH: </b> Because of chronic budget woes, the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter will have to cut the free lunch program for anyone other than shelter residents. About 120 people a day could be affected.
Paul Wellman (file)

When administrators of Casa Esperanza homeless shelter sent out a desperate call for financial help three years ago, part-time Montecito resident and Texas industrialist Harold Simmons ​— ​also a major funder of right-wing causes ​— ​wrote a check for $220,000 on the spot and has sent annual checks of $25,000 since. Today, Casa finds itself in an even deeper hole and would need at least two Harold Simmonses to offset the $500,000 in service cuts that shelter operators announced will take effect September 3.

Gone will be Casa’s free lunch program, which provides quality meals to 100-120 nonresidents a day. Gone too will be Casa’s culinary arts program at which a handful of Casa residents have been given the job skills to work in the food-service industry. Also on the chopping block is Casa’s drop-in center, which among other things has provided shower services to 109,000 visitors over the past five years.

“From the start, we’ve tried to be everything to everybody and provide it all under one big tent,” said Casa board president Rob Pearson. “But that’s no longer sustainable.” Pearson said Casa has had to borrow about half a million dollars a year for the past four years to maintain the shelter’s wide menu of services. By cutting these major programs, he said Casa’s budget will drop from $2.2 million a year (down from a high of $2.8 million a year a few years ago) to $1.5 million. About five to six of the 21 full-time-equivalent personnel now working there will be laid off; the number of case managers will drop from five to two. And many of those still employed will experience significant pay cuts.

The drop-in center operated on the theory that if homeless people were allowed to hang out long enough, eventually they’d avail themselves of some of the many on-site counseling, training, and rehab services. And over the past five years, 1,800 Casa residents managed to transition off the streets and into some form of housing. That, however, has not been enough. In that same time, philanthropic giving patterns have changed dramatically, and donors are now focusing their dollars on getting people transitional “housing first” programs. “We’re moving from an approach where we provide some help for thousands of people to one where where we provide a lot of help to hundreds,” said Pearson.

For Casa administrators, the shift has been nothing less than agonizing. For shelter residents and operators, the real impacts of the cuts will become evident this winter when the Casa operates at a 200-bed maximum capacity as opposed to the 100-bed max it operates at for most of the year. Compounding matters, Casa ​— ​now in its 14th year ​— ​has just embraced a new policy requiring that residents commit to sobriety while there, itself a dramatic policy change.

How many shelter guests will find themselves out on the streets as result of these changes remains to be seen, but the warming centers that have sprung up in recent years at some area churches to handle the overflow population that area shelters can’t accommodate will no doubt be much busier. When asked what he thought Casa residents would do in lieu of the 20,000 showers and 60,000 lunches a year they now get courtesy of the shelter, Casa director Mike Foley stated, “I don’t know.” Currently, Foley said, Casa sees 1,300 new clients a year. He predicted that number will drop, at least in the short term, but suggested demand for shelter bed space would increase in response to spending cuts to federal affordable housing programs. Foley expressed guarded optimism that some benefactor ​— ​like Harold Simmons ​— ​might still rescue the free lunch program. In the meantime, he said, “I’m going to make this program the best program we can make it.”


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