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Jessica Wishan Signs On as Casa Esperanza’s Managing Director

She has hit the ground running in helping the once-struggling Santa Barbara homeless shelter continue on a path toward financial stability

After a tumultuous year for Casa Esperanza, the South Coast's largest homeless shelter, the organization seems to be coming into its own.

Joining the team is Jessica Wishan, who has been hired as the organization's managing director.

Wishan began in the position on Nov. 18 and will be managing the 20 part-time and full-time staff members.

The organization has been recovering since hitting dire financial straits, during which it borrowed about $2.5 million over six years to cover operating expenses, primarily from the Gildea Foundation.

Advocates say the organization has undergone a radical transformation, restructuring its balance sheet and dropping programs that caused the most contention with neighbors — its drop-in day center and lunch program.  

The shelter is also now requiring that all residents be sober and drug-free during their stay. 

It also has reduced costs and righted the ship enough financially to win renewals of important contracts with the City and County of Santa Barbara this fall.

Wishan is coming on at a pivotal time, and said she is "thrilled" at where the organization is now.

Noozhawk sat down with the new director to hear about starting work in a city with which she's already familiar.

Wishan is a Gaucho, graduating from UCSB in 2007 with a major in global studies. In that line of study, there was a large emphasis on nonprofit work, she said.

After graduating, she joined an Los Angeles-organization, Chrysalis, which works to help connect low-income and homeless with job placement. She worked as a special event coordinator there before being hired at PATH, or People Assisting the Homeless, which has more than 20 locations in Southern California.

"My passion is ending homelessness," she said.

She took that job and eventually ended up in San Diego, where she helped spearhead the renovation of a historic building in the city's financial district and turn it into transitional housing.

The 14-floor building housed homeless and contained a community clinic on its ground floor, a federally funded health-care center for the public. 

Wishan worked to help meet with the community and listen to their concerns about placing the center in that location.

"It was a really important community-driven process," she said. "It really needed to work for the neighborhood. ... You have to make sure it's a benefit for everyone."

Some of those skills of diplomacy and communication may well come in handy in Wishan's new position at Casa Esperanza, which in the past has had a rocky relationship with some of the businesses in its industrial neighborhood on Cacique Street, as well as neighbors in the larger Milpas Street corridor.

"We're here to be a good neighbor," she said of the shelter, adding that she looks forward to working with the Milpas Area Task Force.

The ways there has already been collaboration — like the MATF donation of a golf cart for security patrols — are encouraging, Wishan said.

She's also excited about using data to track how the organization is moving individuals out of homelessness and into housing. At PATH in San Diego, "we were able to decrease street homelessness by 50 percent" in the surrounding neighborhood of the housing facility that was opened, she said.

That facility offered "wrap-around services" — in-house medical and case worker attention so that services would come to the residents, a critical component to successful housing programs, she said.

At Casa Esperanza, Wishan said she is looking forward to building up already existing services and beefing them up in the future. 

Wishan also worked with veterans as part of PATH, and helped with their continuum of care effort, helping manage $16 million in federal funds.

When the Casa opportunity came up, Wishan applied and was "thrilled" to see how much work had been done in the last year.

There have been mentions of Casa Esperanza joining up with PATH, and Wishan couldn't say much about the opportunity, other than "it's still on the table."

Since beginning the job, Wishan said many stakeholders come to the table, excited about the work.

"We can't do it alone," she said. In San Diego, "100 percent of our intake was done by street outreach," adding that's something she'd like to increase in Santa Barbara.

One of the things that moves the chronically homeless off the streets "is the relentless love and work of the street outreach teams," she said, adding that Santa Barbara's Restorative Policing Department is a great example of that persistence.

"This community is really supportive," she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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