The new operators of the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter on Cacique Street have now had their doors open to winter residents since December 1, but they’ve yet to hit their maximum capacity of 200. The maximum number to date has been 172, said Jessica Wishan, the shelter’s new director. Wishan moved to Santa Barbara 13 months ago from San Diego, where she worked for the Path shelter operation. Path took over the financially troubled Casa Esperanza last year, and the shelter’s name is now officially Santa Barbara Path.
Path has initiated several new admissions policies, the best known being its insistence that guests be sober. Wishan explained the shelter screens residents for sobriety, tuberculosis, and whether they’ve lived in Santa Barbara at least six months. “We’re trying to look out for people who live here who’ve fallen down on their luck,” she said. “If you just got off the Greyhound, we’re going to refer you to some other services.”
The shelter’s sober-only policy was the subject of guerilla theater comment before the county supervisors and Santa Barbara City Council this past Tuesday as longtime homeless advocate —and perennial city council candidate — Bob Hansen objected that people were forced to stay out on the streets if they failed the breathalyzer test administered by Path intake workers. Those who failed, Hansen charged, were forced to stay out at least two days before they could be considered for admission.
Hansen demanded the elected officials declare an emergency and order the Red Cross to open as a shelter. He refused to leave the podium provided to people testifying before the two elected bodies. Ultimately, he was escorted out both by Sheriff’s deputies and city police officers.
Wishan said she didn’t have statistics on the number of individuals denied admission for failing the breathalyzer test, but stated there’s no hard-and-fast policy that those who fail must wait two days. She said the shelter works with each resident to craft individualized plans. She also said Path refers such applicants to detox and recovery services.
Path also requires all residents agree to abide by good neighbor policies and that they be working in some fashion to achieve permanent housing and employment. Again, she stressed, individual plans are crafted to meet the needs and abilities of residents. This approach marks a significant departure from previous administration of the shelter, which for years accepted people as they were, even if intoxicated. This policy generated complaints from nearby businesses and residents and ultimately undermined Casa Esperanza’s ability to remain financially sustainable. The new sober-only approach was adopted before Casa Esperanza ownership and operations were transferred to Path, and Path has continued it.
The shelter works as a 100-bed operation for most of the year, but, between December 1 and March 30, its permitted capacity doubles to 200. Since July 1, Wishan said Path has served 422 unduplicated guests, who have provided 220 hours of “community beautification” picking up trash around the surrounding neighborhood. Of the shelter’s residents, 25 have found permanent housing since July 1, she said. Forty-three have gotten jobs or increased their earned income.
Wishan — like many seeking to serve the homeless — is still scrambling to devise a plan to care for the homeless should the much predicted El Niño deliver the frequent, drenching rains expected. Though Casa Esperanza is open 24 hours, many shelters require their residents to leave first thing in the morning.
Chuck Flacks, head of the C3H (Central Coast Collaborative Homeless), an effort of many homeless-serving groups, said the latest count indicates there are 1,500 homeless people on the South Coast. Of those, 700 are without shelter. The maximum capacity of the emergency bad-weather shelters operated out of various churches, he estimated, at 670. But that assumes all participating churches operate at the same time. And that’s only at night. Flacks said efforts to contact those in charge of the downtown Armory Gym and Earl Warren Showgrounds has yet to bear fruit.
Not one public agency has yet to be tagged with responsibility and authority for getting the homeless in out of the rain should El Niño deliver, Flacks said, nor has funding been designated. That, he said, remains very much a work in progress.