Mike Foley at the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors (Sept. 17, 2013)
Paul Wellman

Last Thursday proved especially hellacious for Casa Esperanza, Santa Barbara’s long-embattled homeless shelter on Cacique Street. At 5:30 in the evening, a herd of Santa Barbara police officers and detectives arrested a Casa guest wanted by Honolulu police for second-degree murder. Robert Ryan Roediger-Geauque, 32, was arrested quietly and without incident as he watched TV in the shelter’s lounge. Far more emotionally difficult — at least for Casa’s management — was the high-drama announcement made earlier in the day to terminate longtime executive director Mike Foley and his second-in-command Isabelle Loza in response to chronic financial woes. Foley and Loza were notified of their layoffs Thursday, and by Friday they had emptied their offices.

Passionate, articulate, and at times outspoken, Foley had worked for Casa nine years where he’s been its most public face with fundraisers, government officials, and ever-vocal neighborhood critics. Loza, in charge of day-to-day operations, had worked for Casa eight years. Together, their terminations will save the cash-strapped shelter nearly $200,000 a year in salaries and benefits, said Episcopalian minister — and Casa board chair — Mark Asman. Although Casa Esperanza had successfully generated $700,000 in the past six months as part of a desperate fundraising drive, Asman said the layoffs were decided upon when the board found out six weeks ago that Workers Comp costs were $30,000 higher than anticipated and that about $90,000 in expected grants would not materialize.

Asman described the decision to lay off Foley and Loza as “extremely difficult,” terming their contributions as “stellar.” Making it possible, Asman said, was the willingness of new boardmember Bob Bogle, who runs an Atlanta-based commercial real estate enterprise from his South Coast home, to step into the void. Bogle, who has volunteered at Casa the past two years, is now volunteering to work full-time as the shelter’s executive until its finances are stabilized. Asman said that the cuts will enable Casa — which provides a maximum of 200 beds a night in winter months — to make it through this fiscal year and into the next.

Foley and the Casa board have spent the past two years trying to put out fires. Neighborhood critics with the Milpas Community Association complained the shelter had become an attractive nuisance and violated the terms of its conditional use permit with City Hall. Although city planners thought otherwise, the shelter was brought up short for not dealing more aggressively with street people hanging around — though not staying there — to take advantage of the free lunch outreach program. In response, the shelter, its critics, and ancillary stakeholders engaged in a lengthy mediation program which, though private, was said to be quite intense.

Behind the scenes, Foley and the Casa board found themselves scrambling to deal with $2 million in loans they had borrowed to enable the shelter to survive the recession. Partially in response to mounting financial pressures, boardmembers began to question the nature of Casa’s core mission. From its start in 1999, the Casa had been set up to provide shelter and service to anyone in need, no matter how unwilling they might be to seek help. But for clients trying to get clean and sober, the presence of openly intoxicated individuals proved destabilizing. Likewise the inability to provide a quiet space for the mentally ill segregated from the population at large posed another problem.

Last March, the board announced it would adopt a sober-only policy — a dramatic change — and that the free lunch program would be eliminated. Many homeless activists worried the new policy would put countless people on the streets without access to shelter, but those fears have not been borne out, at least not in the adjacent lower Milpas neighborhood. In the meantime, Casa managed to secure housing offering 14 beds — away from the din — to those on the streets struggling with mental health problems. The shift, according to recent statistics, seems to have worked. Last week, Casa was nearly full with a census of 192 guests. About 20 percent of those applying for shelter are turned away for open intoxication, less than the 30-40 percent initially projected.

Even so, the shelter has reported a one percent increase in the number of bed-nights spent there, indicating that those who get in stay and stay longer. Shelter staff described a 70 percent reduction in “incidents” and infractions they report. And the Santa Barbara police records suggest the number of calls for service from December to March 1 dropped from 110 last year to 82. As to why that might be, police spokesperson Sgt. Riley Harwood said, “I can’t put my finger on anything other than speculation,” but characterized it as a “significant change.”

Foley said he would do anything he could to help the board and the new shelter director succeed. In the meantime, he finds himself in the unaccustomed position of having time on his hands. “Hey, I’m watching my 7-year-old son play second base,” he said. “So how bad can it be?”


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