Council Mulls Shelter Funding

New Sober-Only Rules Spark More Questions Than Answers

Members of the homeless community line up in front of Casa Esperanza
Paul Wellman (file)

Ever since the Casa Esperanza Homeless Center announced it would no longer accept inebriated clients — and that it was excluding non-shelter residents from its free lunch program and afternoon drop-in center — the $64,000 question has been: “Where would all these people go?” The short answer, according to shelter director Mike Foley is: “We don’t know.” For Santa Barbara City Councilmember Grant House, that wasn’t good enough: “Where are these people going, and what are we going to do when they get there?” Santa Barbara City Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss stated there’s been a 50 percent reduction in the number of calls for service in the lower Milpas Street neighborhood since the Casa began implementing the major policy changes this summer, suggesting that perhaps many of the people drawn by the lure of free food and a convenient place to hang have left town.

City police spokesperson Sergeant Riley Harwood acknowledged — in a separate interview — there’s been a slight dip in the calls for service and offense reports for nuisance street crime in the neighborhood since this summer. Harwood noted there were 71 neighborhood calls for service this August and September as opposed to 88 the previous year. Likewise, there were 59 offense reports written up in the same two months this summer as opposed to 84 last year. But other statistics released by Harwood also suggest the downward trend in nuisance crime complaints predates the homeless shelter’s new sobriety policy. Two years ago, the respective numbers were much higher, 126 and 121. The City Council heard anecdotal reports of increased homeless populations showing up in Isla Vista and Carpinteria; Harwood added that Ventura has reportedly seen an increase as well. To what extent any of this is related to Casa Esperanza’s new rules, however, remains to be seen. The big test will come December 1, when the emergency shelter is scheduled to open at its full capacity of 200 beds. Until then, its census has hovered just under 100.

The specific question confronting the council this Tuesday was whether the Casa should still be allowed to collect about $125,000 in grants earmarked for the homeless shelter, but for services the Casa is no longer providing — like the drop-in center. Ultimately, the council voted to allow shelter operators to use the funds for other purposes, like hiring a case manager and someone to prepare the meals. In addition, $75,000 will be spent to operate emergency warming centers this winter at various churches located throughout the South Coast.

The Casa shelter can be counted on to generate heated debate, and this Tuesday, the council heard from one former client, Jose Arturo Ortiz, who urged them to “shut her down.” Ortiz — who said he became homeless in 2002 — stated he’d stayed at the shelter at various times and described conditions there as “chaotic” and “a nightmare,” adding he felt as if he’d been “stripped of his dignity.” But the council also heard from another onetime Casa resident, Robert Burke, who said he was impressed by “how professional and ethical” the shelter staff he encountered were, and he even liked the food.

The shelter has been hemorrhaging cash over the past five years, spending far more than it was collecting in grants, donations, and government contracts. The one-stop-shop concept, in which people in various forms of economic, mental health, and substance abuse distress were placed under one roof, has since been proven to be counterproductive in the extreme. Philanthropists are more intent on funding operations that get people off the streets and have grown less inclined to support shelters that take people as they are, drunk or sober. This new approach seems to be paying off; an emergency fundraising drive exceeded its target of $300,000 by about $100,000, but that infusion of cash, while welcome, only gets the Casa through the end of the year.

City Councilmember Randy Rowse suggested that because the Casa is a major recipient of city funding, perhaps City Hall should exercise greater financial oversight of the organization to prevent it from getting in such financial turmoil. City Administrator Jim Armstrong nixed that notion, noting that the Casa already turns in annual financial reports prepared by outside auditors; the city, he noted, is not in the business of conducting forensic audits. Just because the shelter was in a deficit mode, he said, does not mean that the money was being misspent. “They’re spending more money than they’re bringing in,” Armstrong said. “A lot of nonprofits are in the same boat.”


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