Weekly column by Loretta Redd
The management, mission and outcomes of Casa Esperanza have been in the news recently. Faced with loss of funding from an increasingly unsupportive community, some questions of where donations were applied, and minimal success in reducing the numbers of those living on the streets, I challenge us all to help formulate a different approach.
First, why not close Casa Esperanza as a homeless shelter and turn it into a desperately needed mental health facility? While our jails are turning into psych wards by default and those with dual diagnosis of addiction and psychological trauma simply fall between the cracks or wait for years for services from the VA, this building seems like a plausible location for an adult psychiatric unit.
Casa was a bold experiment. It was well-intentioned, arguably poorly managed, with the success of its programs still in question while the impact of its ‘open door’ policy reverberate on our streets.
One thing we should have learned is that centralized facilities with little accountability can have disastrous outcomes.
Rather than warehousing the homeless in a large, single facility which brings pressure on surrounding businesses and neighborhood, why not design a program of smaller, scatter-sized shelters of 10-20 beds throughout the city and county. Allow for some ‘special use’ mini-shelters, such as women only, seniors over 65, or for those with physical disabilities and significant health challenges.
Often without the knowledge of neighbors and usually free of complaints, there are many small group homes already throughout our community for drug recovery, special needs and elder care. These are allowed and encouraged by State law, and generally supersede local ordinances.
In many ways, this is what the homeless create organically on their own. Many congregate in groups, whether in RVs behind warehouses and empty offices, or in ditches along the roadway, or in camouflaged bush camps along the 101. They share their stuff and often look out for one another, at least until drugs or alcohol are introduced and someone goes psycho over stolen shoes or other accusations.
We know that many homeless Vets have difficulty being in confined spaces. They’re especially challenged in large facilities where crowded conditions are unsettling. Bringing the jungles of Cambodia or Nam home in their psyches, some have spent 40 years on the streets, still expecting the enemy to breech a perimeter, still trying to numb or erase the stench and horrors of combat.
The broken souls returning from equally useless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be no different.
While many people make the assumption that shelter dwellers are lazy, or morally bankrupt or even stupid, many are working at least part time, simply trying to exist until financial circumstances allow for permanent housing again.
Casa Esperanza did many things right– they established a culinary training program, offering residents a skill with which to earn a living. They required those with incomes to contribute a part of it for their stay, and forced a part of it to be put into savings, while the remainder could be spent. Casa Esperanza provided a Post Office box for those who needed a permanent address to receive benefits or mail.
But they didn’t live up to the philosophy of Michigan author and urban minister, Robert Lupton who writes, “If you really want to help someone, never do for them something they can do for themselves.” His book, Toxic Charities, is based on the belief that “nobody is so poor that they don’t have something to contribute.” Experience has taught Lupton that, “the most well-intended giving can become an entitlement, robbing recipients of dignity and keeping them from reaching their God-given potential.”
In addition to government programs, we are blessed to have some well-funded non-profits in our area addressing mental illness, addiction and street living. They have very dedicated staff, but most are lacking sufficient facilities. Would it be possible for agencies like Cottage Hospital Mental Health, the Mental Health Association, Council for Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Zona Seca, or similar groups to incorporate the Casa facility into its long-range plans?
The Court system could also provide a valuable role, in following the model of the Veterans Court, but for the mentally ill. Rather than jail, they would be assigned to a program with case managers, drug therapy and oversight.
We have hundreds of psychotherapists, executive coaches, social work students and psychology majors in this town. UCSB, Westmont, Antioch, Pacifica, Hudson, even City College EMT or nursing students could all perform community service while completing their graduate internship or counseling licensure requirements.
Smaller, scattered facilities to replace Casa Esperanza would build strong incentives for sobriety. While offering the experience of community responsibility and belonging, there could be a stair-step program of services, amenities and expectations of its residents. Many group homes are already providing a similar model, but we certainly need more psychiatric beds and longer term programs than the revolving door of de facto “providers” like Cottage Hospital.
Expensive, maybe. But what is the long term salary, benefit, training and material cost of 20 more police on our streets? And when their only option for placement is an already filled County jail or overwhelmed County Alcohol Drug Mental Health System (ADMHS), what is the likelihood of success?
We’re not going to restore every person to permanent shelter, we won’t ‘save’ every addict, cure every mental illness, or inspire every person to seek a better life. But it might be time to search for creative answers, put an already built structure to good use, and acknowledge that throwing more money at a failed concept isn’t helping anyone.