Last week’s San Bernardino County City Council meeting became a forum on the so-called magnet effect that results from homeless assistance efforts.
The subject was broached during council deliberations with regard to a proposal by Mary’s Mercy Center to establish what was termed a “comprehensive center for homeless men on an 11-acre project site on Walnut Street between Pico Avenue and San Marcos Street.”
The project is one intended to offer housing, job training and other services to up to 115 homeless men. To be known as Mary’s Village, it is intended to match two other centers run by Mary’s Mercy Center, one called Veronica’s Home of Mercy and another called Mary’s Mercy Table, which are about a mile-and-a-half away.
Mary’s Mercy Centers are funded through the Arrowhead United Way, the City of San Bernardino’s pass-through of federal Community Development Block Grants and emergency shelter grants, Catholic Healthcare West, the San Bernardino Community Foundation, the S. L. Gimbel Foundation, the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, a Diocese of San Bernardino Sacrificial Giving Grant, the City of San Bernardino Economic Development Agency, the Crestwood Corporation and the San Manuel Mission Band of Indians.
According to a staff report accompanying the agenda item, the project will entail “a village-type campus that will provide support to its residents to facilitate their full inclusion in the broader community. Phase I will encompass approximately 2.92 acres of the project and includes the construction of four single-story residential buildings containing approximately 7,000 square feet each that will accommodate up to eighty-five residents. These buildings will include common kitchen, dining and living areas, training rooms, and administrative offices. Phase 2 will encompass approximately 2.91 acres of the project and includes the development of approximately 17,000 square feet of medical, administrative, and educational space in up to three buildings. Phase 3 will encompass approximately 3.05 acres of the project and envisions the construction of up to fifteen (15) rent-subsidized housing units for graduates of Mary’s Village programs. Finally, Phase 4 will encompass approximately 2.14 acres of the project for the future construction of two buildings containing up to a combined total of approximately 20,000 square feet to house support/community services and a chapel.”
The staff report continued, “The project consists of the development of a men’s residential complex that will provide comprehensive on-site medical, behavioral health, training and support services that offer a healthy alternative to substance abuse, mental illness or homelessness. The goal and objective of Mary’s Village necessitates an extensive and comprehensive program that affords each man a sense of growth and development leading to integration of the man into a new life and society. The development of the proposed project and the implementation of the on-site programs seek to improve the lives of its resident population, and by extension, create a positive change in the broader community. Mary’s Village seeks to address the wide range of needs of each individual client with a goal of increasing community safety and stimulating economic vitality. The residents will live on-site 24 hours per day seven days per week, and a typical resident is at the facility for a period of 12 to 18 months. When completed, Mary’s Village will approximately 39 staff members and up to 115 residents.”
While the staff report appeared to be favorably disposed toward the project, city councilman Henry Nickel was skeptical. After he wrung from staff that the current zoning on the property is residential urban with a density of four units per acre, Nickel took aim at the likelihood that the project would attract greater numbers of homeless into the city than are already there.
“We just had a discussion about Seccombe Lake and the chronic conditions that we’re confronting in our city and, unfortunately, there is a link to the number of homeless,” he said. “One of the consistent complaints I get from the remaining business owners and property owners we have downtown is that it’s very difficult to maintain their businesses because of the decreased patronage because people feel frightened or they have in fact been accosted while downtown. I know this council since I have been a part of this dais has struggled with ‘What is our strategy?’ A couple of years ago we decided to develop an access center to provide comprehensive services to our city’s homeless population, something we had never done before. So I have heard this speech: ‘Something we have never done before.’ I guess my question for Mary’s Mercy House is, ‘How is this different from what we were told we had to provide through our access center?’ The reason I’m asking this is there seems to be some inconsistency in terms of our strategy. The city’s strategy, from my understanding, if we even have one, is that we are going to provide services to individuals that are from San Bernardino. If you are not from here, you need to leave. I’m sorry. We are not the drop center for the region’s homeless population The numbers are stunning and if true problematic. If the surrounding cities are not willing to allow this type of facility in their jurisdiction, why are we doing it over and over and over again? Is there a link between the chronic homelessness problem we have in our city and the fact that we keep approving these types of projects? My question is: ‘How is this facility and the services that are provided by this facility different from what we are providing through our homeless access center and are they exclusive to San Bernardino residents and if they are not I have a real problem because now we are inconsistent with the strategy that we have defined as a city in terms of what homeless population we are going to serve. All it does is it invites individuals who are not from our city now and gives them another outlet of services that we’re trying to contain.”
Nickel then poised the question of the project’s proponent’s and representatives, “Is there a restriction on the residency of the individual that will obtain services from this facility?”
Michael Hein, Terry Kent and Father Michael Barry endeavored to respond to Nickel’s questions over the course of much of the public hearing.
“We will give priority to anyone who is a citizen of San Bernardino,” Hein said, while indicating that others from outside the city would not be absolutely prohibited from participating in the program. “To say that they have to be a resident of San Bernardino and have to have ID, yes we will attempt to do that. They would be given priority. At St. Mary’s Mercey Center we will be a 24 hours 7 days per week operation. They will be housed there 24 hours per day 7 days a week. They could be transported off site for medical and dental [treatment] for training, for educational purposes. They are given a schedule from case management and that is what we work off of.”
Hein angled to make the point that St. Mary Village will offer an in-depth and permanent solution to the homeless status of those participating, and he contrasted that approach with the lion’s share of efforts the city has employed so far.
Hein said of the program available at the city’s access center, “They were given hotel or motel vouchers and medical assistance but there was no case management to see what was going on with them.” Hein said this stop gap approach lacked followup and verification of the effectiveness of the effort, and city officials and others involved in the effort failed “to see if they use it [the provided assistance] for what the purposes really were. We will give priority to San Bernardino City residents and we do follow up to make sure that those people who are residents who are part of the program are making their appointments.”
Hein said that “Since 1987 Mercy Center has been in San Bernardino. It is a woman and children’s program that we currently have at Veromica’s House. We are now seeking to transition it to help men.”
Hein’s assertion was not convincing, Nickel said.
“I keep going back to what is our strategy and each decision we make has to be consistent with our strategy,” Nickel said. “What I am hearing now is a diversion away from what our strategy is to be with respect to our access center and how we are to deal with our homeless challenge in this city. What I am hearing now is we’ve got a new program that is going to be open to all types of individuals that doesn’t appear necessarily consistent. I am troubled by it. If those numbers [of homeless currently in the city and the 38 programs in place to assist them] are correct and we are more or less putting a facility in a single family residential neighborhood and the individual who represents that neighborhood is not here tonight, I am extremely reluctant to approve this tonight.
“Until I am shown how this is consistent, how this moves our city forward, I am not convinced,” Nickel said.
Another of the project proponents, Terry Kent, took a stab at justifying the undertaking. “You asked what is the difference,” Kent said. “The difference is we’ve worked with city staff over the years and they’ve told us the problems you are highlighting and that a lot of the programs are band-aids: ‘Here’s a bowl of soup; this’ll keep you going another day.’ Our facility is not the stereotypical [homeless facility]. If you went to Veronica’s Home right now, I would bet every dime I’ve got you would not find a homeless person laying in the bushes outside our facility, because people know our facility is not a drop-in. Most people who come to our facility, if they came to us at 8 a.m. and started the vetting process, they wouldn’t be living there that night. They have to go through a whole vetting process to see whether they want to be there. We have more people that drop out of it because they don’t like the rules. We become the mommy and daddy for them. Unfortunately, that is where we are in society, that we need to retrain them. That’s what we do with this program. We put them on a reset. We say: “This is your case management. We’re going to get you into school. We’re going to get you your GED. We’re going to work with the logistics companies that are in this county and in this city, and we’re going to train you to run that fork lift, so you can make a decent living and you can end up renting a house or you can own a house. So, what is the difference between us and the access center? We don’t hand them a check to go to a hotel and say ‘We’ll see you next week or whenever. We’re with them day in and day out, for 18 to 24 months and sometimes for years.”
Nickel, picking up on the negative contrast Kent suggested between the access center and Mary’s Mercy House, sought to obtain an even sharper renunciation of the access center.
“So is the access center adequate or inadequate?” Nickel pressed.
“I don’t want to comment on the access center,” Kent said in resisting the question. “I want to concentrate on what our program is. Our program is not a band-aid. It is a life changing program. We don’t want the guy who just wants a bowl of soup We want the guy who really wants to reset his life. He’s figured out that ‘You know what? I’ve really screwed up somewhere down the line. Help me out here and give me those tools.’ And that’s what we’re trying to attempt here.”
Nickels persisted, however, in propounding his view that efforts to assist the homeless in San Bernardino have proven to be exercises in futility, even as each new approach was lauded as a panacea that never panned out. He suggested Mary’s Mercy House was more of the same.
“I guess I’m just frustrated here tonight, because a year-and-a-half, two years ago we were told we had to spend money that we could have spent on other things to create an access center to fix the chronic homeless problem we had in our city and now I am being told ‘Well, we’re just giving out vouchers. It doesn’t work. We need something else.’ It is a very compelling analogy that we just keep trying to find other ways of fixing a problem without addressing what the real problem is. It doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Every time we get a program, the problem is just growing bigger. It’s not diminishing. It’s getting bigger. I’m almost to the point where I am saying, ‘It’s time for a moratorium on these type of facilities. Until we develop a true strategy and partnership with these operators, until we develop a true strategy on how we are going to allocate and use resources in areas of our city to optimal effect to ensure we address this problem effectively. To keep addressing this over and over again in what appears to be an inconsistent manner is very troubling to me, especially when I hear from residents and business owners who say they are at the point of saying ‘I’m finished. I’m leaving. I can’t tolerate it any more.’”
The godfather, as it were, of the Mary’s Mercy House program, Father Michael Barry, was unable to restrain himself from responding.
“You’re saying no because you don’t have a strategy,” Barry said, summoning up his wellspring of moral authority and speaking in a soft Irish brogue, before upbraiding Nickel. “That’s not my fault.”
Barry intoned, “We’re presenting a project and we have a track record. I don’t know if you’ve been to Veronica’s home. But for the city of San Bernardino… we’re not talking about strategies. We’re talking about people. We’re trying to address the hearts of people.”
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Bessine Richard questioned the location selected for the home, which is in the Third Ward. She indicated during the discussion that she would vote against the project because of that consideration “The people that are in support of it don’t live there,” she said, adding that the city’s most intensive commercial area is within the Third Ward and that putting a use that will serve as a magnet for the homeless so close to the tax revenue producing assets in the city was unwise.
“Why are we putting it there, where our money is?” she asked. “I love what you are doing, but why there?”
With Councilman John Valdivia, in whose Third Ward the home was to go, absent from the meeting, the prospects for the project’s passage appeared to narrow when councilman Benito Barrios by his questions of the proponents sounded indisposed to the project. He inquired about the attrition rate from the program, eliciting from Hein that most stay engaged in the program to completion in 12 to 24 months but that some leave within 60 to 90 days.
Barrios pounced on that admission, “If they do drop out of the program, they will be hanging around San Bernardino,” he said, suggesting that the program would, as Nickels suggested, bring more homeless into the city than it will alleviate. “If it is in the city, it has to be for the city only,” Barrios said. “We can’t control who comes here, but we don’t need to attract more. He called for working “together to iron out some of the details.”
Councilman Fred Shorett, however, countered much of what Nickel had said. “It is all about the management and I am confident with the track record of Veronica’s House and Mary’s Mercy House this would be good project. I love the looks of the renderings. It’s new.”
He disputed the gist of Nickel’s argument, saying that Mercy House’s approach constituted a cogent approach and strategy to eliminate homelessness rather than inadequately address its symptoms. “It’s part of our strategy to get housing first for the homeless population in the community.”
At the same time, Shorett said he was in concurrence with Nickel that a series of stopgap measures the city had taken in the past were ill-conceived and inadequate and a squandering of resources. “I agree,” he said. “We don’t have a strong strategy in dealing with homelessness.” But to blur the distinction between the projects that worked and the ones that did not was wrong, he said. “We need to have these kind of effective projects, he said, and referencing the previously quoted number of homeless projects as ones put forth by 38 organizations, he said those should be examined. “We need to vet those and limit them,” Shorett said. “Take those 38 organizations and weed some of them out and bring in others who are doing a more effective job and making real strides in dealing with homelessness. I don’t throwing a good project out is what we should do.
Shorett listed a handful of projects he thought worthwhile, including the Mercy House undertakings and “The Central City Lutheran Mission, the Salvation Army, Kim Carter and her group. I don’t think we did a service to our community when we allowed the access center to come in and push those other organizations away. Housing is critical. This is not a shelter. This is housing. This is working with people.”
In his brief remarks, Mayor Carey Davis, who normally is not empowered to vote but has both veto power in the case of 4-3 votes as well as tie breaking authority, spoke favorably of the project.
Ultimately, when the project was voted upon, Nickel and Richard opposed it, but Barrios, who was either persuaded by Shorett’s remarks or cognizant that Davis was likely to break any tie by voting in favor of Mercy House, voted to approve the project, such that it passed 4-2, with Shorett, councilman Jim Mulvihill, councilwoman Virginia Marquez and Barrios prevailing.