Two years ago, an angry crowd of Milpas Street neighbors “one step away from pitchforks and torches” descended on a city Planning Commission meeting to complain about Casa Esperanza and the bad behavior of its homeless clients, remembered Commissioner Addison Thompson. But at the biannual review of the shelter’s permit that took place last Thursday, no one showed up to air what had been consistent grievances of trespassing, camping, public intoxication, and other nuisance crimes. Instead, the commissioners heaped praise on Casa leaders for regaining control of their operations and finances after years of acrimony. “This is a tremendous turnaround,” said Thompson, “and I’m very happy to see it.”
In his presentation to the commission and in a later interview, interim Casa director Joe Tumbler pointed to a few key changes that set the stage for what he’s called the shelter’s “new lease on life.” It adopted new sobriety rules and eliminated free lunches for nonresidents, moved detox beds off-site, implemented a 100-day housing program, created a trash-collecting team, ramped up neighborhood patrol and outreach, laid off two top directors, and started prioritizing services for Santa Barbara residents. The moves refocused energies on clients most serious about making life changes, and they reingratiated the facility with nearby residents and business owners, Tumbler said. They also reduced Casa’s annual spending from a $2.8 million rate to $1.6 million. “We had a bigger heart than our pocketbook,” he said.
Tumbler stepped into his director’s role as an unpaid volunteer two months ago. He took over for interim director Bob Bogle, who filled in for embattled director Mike Foley after he was laid off in March. A former vice chair of SunAmerica, Tumbler has been instrumental in balancing Casa’s books. “Numbers are my bag,” he explained. The shelter was saddled with $4.6 million in debt, but a major lender has forgiven $1.1 million of that as of June 30, and in September, the city and county forgave $1 million in mortgage debt, which was a contractual agreement from the time the Cacique Street building was built 15 years ago. Tumbler said Casa hopes to have the rest paid down in 10 years. After a six-figure loss, the shelter produced a modest but significant $28,000 surplus this fiscal year. They’re not out of the woods, Tumbler went on, noting ongoing fundraising pushes, but are at least in the black.
Casa has hired a new permanent director but is holding off on making an official announcement until she can relocate to town. Saying only that she’s “remarkably young and remarkably capable,” Tumbler stated his successor has run facilities more complicated than Casa and imparted valuable ideas even during her interview. Of concerns that Casa will have burned through three leaders in less than a year by the time the new exec starts in November, Tumbler assured that their promised direction remains steady and that “there is not another shoe that is going to drop.”
Sharon Byrne with the Milpas Community Association (MCA), which has long toiled to curb neighborhood nuisance behavior associated with Casa Esperanza, agreed the situation is much improved. “Who would have thought that four years ago we would get to this place?” she said. “I’m stunned.” Byrne pointed to the dramatic reduction in calls for police service in the area and credited business owners for stepping up and working well with law enforcement.
Officer Keld Hove with the Police Department’s restorative policing detail said Casa’s new sobriety rules allow service providers to use the shelter “to a more successful degree,” and he explained the environment inside has become a “much safer place for the vulnerable and fragile who wouldn’t have been able to make changes in a free-for-all.” He also said though some feared that the new guidelines and the loss of the free lunch program would lead to fresh problems in other areas of town, those concerns do not appear to have been borne out. “I have seen no drawbacks whatsoever,” he said, also complimenting markedly improved relations between the MCA and Casa. “This was a change I didn’t expect to see.”