After hearty helpings of lunch for nearly 200 people had been served at the Casa Esperanza Homeless Center on Wednesday, volunteers began cleaning up in preparation to serve the next meal, which they do daily.
Serving lunch for up to 200 people is part of the shelter’s outreach, and is included in a special set of permits that allow the center to operate where it does. Those permits, and how well the shelter is conforming to their conditions of approval, will be the subject of a City of Santa Barbara Planning Commission meeting Thursday, during which shelter officials will present a two-year progress report.
Though city staff already have found that the shelter is sufficiently meeting the conditions of approval to keep its permits, one man working in the kitchen Wednesday said he wanted the commission — and the public — to know how important it is to keep the lunches in place. As he helped scrub trays and pans, volunteer Ken Jewesson spoke about the importance of feeding people just one solid meal a day, a service allowed under the conditional use permits.
“This keeps people healthy and out of hospitals,” said Jewesson, who has been working with Community Kitchen for about 16 years. He said it’s not just the homeless who benefit from the lunch, but often low-income people who need a solid meal. He said that without the program, people would find other ways to get the food they need, which could amount to increased panhandling — or worse.
“This is important to our city,” Jewesson said. “We are feeding people who really need help.”
The shelter’s presence in the industrial neighborhood, and its sometimes prickly relationship with its neighbors, have long been a topic of discussion. The shelter’s permit was approved in 1999 and had two parts. The first allowed the conversion of the shelter, then a furniture store, into a homeless day center, an emergency homeless winter shelter for 230 people and a year-round shelter for up to 30 people. The second phase allowed the building to add a second story, but it didn’t increase capacity. It also added a lunch service for up to 200 people and a detox facility for 14 people.
In 2003, the city’s Planning Commission increased the number of year-round beds from 30 to 100, a decision appealed by neighbors on Milpas Street. The City Council denied the appeal but allowed the 30 beds to increase to 100 for nine months of the year. The number of beds eventually increased to 100 year-round beds.
Last March, officials from the shelter requested an amendment to their permit, asking that 40 additional beds be allowed for 90 days. The Police Department also had requested an increase of beds by 10 percent to respond to the public safety needs and bad weather plaguing the homeless.
The Planning Commission approved the increase, but with conditions. The shelter would have to report back on alternate locations to hold its lunch program, report on a study that compared day and evening shelter residents, and update on how the shelter was coordinating with the Milpas Action Task Force, a group of community members, county and city officials, and shelter workers.
The type of permit the shelter has, known as a conditional use permit, is property specific, and can only be revoked if the conditions of the permit’s approval are changed. Paul Casey, the city’s community development director, would have to find the shelter had violated its conditions of approval to revoke the permit. But city staff already have found that the shelter complies, and since the meeting wasn’t posted as a revocation hearing, Casa Esperanza’s permit can’t be revoked at Thursday’s meeting.
According to an analysis from the Police Department, crimes commonly associated with the homeless community in the lower Milpas Corridor have increased 472 percent in the past 12 years. At the shelter itself, offense reports have increased from eight, when the shelter opened in 1999, to a projected 62 this year. But staff reports say the shelter has bolstered its efforts to increase attendance at the task force meetings among neighbors along the Milpas Corridor. The shelter also has expanded security on the premises to seven days a week, and regularly checks in with neighbors and responds to complaints 24 hours a day, according to the report.
“It is clear from public comment at previous meetings, as well as from more recent community meetings, that some members of the community are not satisfied with Casa Esperanza’s work to reduce neighborhood nuisance issues from homeless,” the report stated.
Thursday’s hearing will begin at 1 p.m. in the Council Chambers at Santa Barbara City Hall, 735 Anacapa St.
An interfaith silent prayer vigil for homelessness and hunger will be held before the meeting, from noon to 1 p.m. at De la Guerra Plaza.