San Luis Obispo’s homeless barred from services
April 19, 2013
Scores of homeless, barred from Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo’s homeless services, spend their days begging for food, looking for shelter and avoiding city police who target them.
CAPSLO receives more than $60 million in government funding and support each year to provide services to those in need, including San Luis Obispo’s homeless population. But, the homeless are required to follow a set of rules imposed under the tenure of Dee Torres, homeless services coordinator. If the homeless don’t follow the rules, they are suspended or barred from receiving help.
Peggy Fowler, a former 20-year employee CAPSO’s homeless services, says the refusal to provide food to homeless barred from services is not only cruel, but also increases the likelihood someone will resort to stealing in order to eat.
“Suspensions from homeless services are for violation of the rules which include throwing a cigarette butt on the ground or arriving five minutes early,” Fowler said. “I felt that making someone sleep in the dirt for failing to do a chore is wrong.”
The rules include a ban on giving food to homeless persons who have been suspended from the program, entering the Prado Day Center through the driveway on foot and failing to control the physical tics and other behaviors resulting from medical conditions or mental illnesses.
If a homeless person fails to follow Torres’ rules, she bars them from receiving meals and a place to sleep and shower, according to the program’s rules and dozens of citations CCN staff have viewed. Many of those barred are refused services for months or years because they are unable to make it through a laborious readmission process Torres has put into place, Fowler said.
“The individuals who are homeless have priorities like, ‘where can I go to the bathroom,’ ” Fowler said. “We are withholding services that are paid for by both the federal government and the local community. Their whole system and lack of recourse is not right. The punishment of refusing food and shelter is pretty severe considering the rules broken.”
Erica Merchado has received several suspensions from CAPSLO’s homeless services, despite having a terminal illness, former 30-year employee Estella Bonds said.
Merchado, 32, has Huntington’s disease, which causes her arms to make constant involuntary movements. She was diagnosed with Huntington’s when she was 21 and entered CAPSLO’s homeless services two years later, Merchado said. Merchado utilized the services for more than five years.
CAPSLO last suspended Merchado about three years ago for taking her lunch out of the Prado Day Center to the bus stop on Prado Road, Merchado said. Staff also suspended her for taking food from the day center to a suspended homeless client, Bonds said.
Merchado now sleeps under the Madonna Bridge and spends much of her day sitting outside Circle K on South Higuera Street with other homeless who beg for food.
One rule strictly enforced by CAPSLO prohibits the homeless from coming within an eighth of a mile, or 660 feet, of the Prado Day Center between 4 p.m. and 8:30 a.m. and within an eighth of a mile of the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter between 7:00 a.m. and 5 p.m. Torres enforces the policy because her employees are afraid of the homeless, so she wants the homeless out of the area when employees are coming and going, she said.
If a staff member sees a homeless person, or even property belonging to a homeless person in the restricted area during those hours, it results in a suspension from services, according to CAPSLO rules. While suspended from services, the homeless can still incur more penalties. Many short suspensions compound into longtime bans, said Joette Sunshine, a former employee of homeless services who worked there for four years.
When a homeless person is suspended from services, that person is only allowed to enter the eighth of a mile zone surrounding both the day center and night shelter during one 15-minute time slot each day. If a homeless client wants obtain a print out of violations committed or acquire an application to re-enter services, the person must get in and out of the day center restricted area between 11:00 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. and the night shelter restricted area between 7:00 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Failure to do so triggers an additional 30-day suspension.
Michael Pryor, an out-of-work computer technician and a former singer, received a 30-day suspension for cheating CAPSLO’s lottery system in an attempt to secure a bed in the shelter on a rainy night. Pryor used a ticket from an earlier night that someone had given him, and CAPSLO staff caught him.
Though Pryor received only a 30-day suspension, he is now suspended from services for 270 days because CAPSLO employees have spotted him within an eighth of a mile of the day center and night shelter outside of the 15-minute time slots, Pryor said.
Pryor sleeps outside. One day, he went to the shelter on a cold, rainy night to ask staff for a blanket. CAPSLO staff refused him a blanket and instead gave him an additional 30-day suspension for entering the restricted area.
Tiamoyo Peterson quit working for CAPSLO’s homeless services several years ago after taking her concerns of the treatment of the homeless to CAPLO’s CEO Elizabeth Steinberg, Peterson said.
Peterson, who has two masters degrees and a doctorate in social psychology, said she became concerned when Torres kicked out a homeless woman in her late 20s because the client was not always able to control her schizophrenia and would be obnoxious at times.
“It was (CAPSLO’s) position that Dee had a valid point of view and I shouldn’t have contradicted her,” Peterson said. “In this instance, the client’s behavior was obnoxious not dangerous. Dee believes that not only can a schizophrenic control their behavior, but that they should be punished when they cannot. Punishment for mental illness is inappropriate.”
Steinberg promoted Torres to the top position in homeless services around the same time a countywide Homeless Services Oversight Council was created.
In 2008, Torres’ boyfriend San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill became the founding chair of the Homeless Services Oversight Council, a group with a plan to end homelessness in 10 years by promoting a 200-bed shelter to be managed by Torres. Those staying at the shelter are to be required to give 50 to 70 percent of their income to case management allegedly to be used to get them into housing.
Several law enforcement agencies are looking into allegations that those managing the required savings accounts have been misappropriating the funds.
Together with San Luis Obispo City Councilman John Ashbaugh, Hill and Torres have worked to have the city and the police increase enforcement against homeless who refuse to enter case management.
Both Ashbaugh and Hill have regularly voted to provide government funding to CAPSLO. Ashbaugh sits on the CAPSLO board of directors and Hill is engaged to Torres but both men say there is no conflict of interest.
Earlier this year, the San Luis Obispo City Council voted to have police increase ticketing of homeless who do not participate in case management.
The SLO Downtown Association recently asked those in favor of supporting CAPSLO’s homeless services’ programs and who want the city to dedicate two police officers to focus on transients downtown to sign an online petition.
The city’s police department recently chose to implement a Community Action Team (CAT), composed of two officers who focus on transients in San Luis Obispo. Several local law enforcement personnel who say it is not constitutional to focus on a group of people and not their actions are referring to CAT as “Cops Against Transients.”
San Luis Obispo Chief of Police Steve Gesell says his department neither categorizes people, nor enforces the law based on status.
“We are trying to enforce the law equally but it would be foolish of us not to understand the dynamic of the homeless transient population,” Gesell said.
In 2012, San Luis Obispo police officers cited 605 people for breaking Penal Code 647(e) which makes it a misdemeanor to “lodge in any building, structure, vehicle or place, whether public or private, without the permission of the owner or the person entitled to the possession or in control of it.” In the rest of the county, only one person was cited for breaking Penal Code 647(e) in 2012, according to records requests received from all community and county law enforcement agencies.
Gesell says his department is utilizing 647(e) as a way to combat the environmental impact human waste from homeless campers has on the community. He refers to those homeless not utilizing CAPSLO’s services as program resistant.
SLO police officers are giving 647(e) citations to homeless found sleeping in parks, on benches or anywhere throughout the city. They also routinely roust homeless, including Merchado, who sit outside Circle K, even though customers of the convenience store and the adjacent Subway sandwich shop frequently buy them food.
On April 11, former CAPSLO employee Estella Bonds visited Merchado outside Circle K, and when a police officer arrived he not only scolded Merchado, but Bonds too.
Officer Eric Lincoln ordered Bonds to leave and told Merchado, “Come on, Erica. You know better.”
“If they’re running a homeless shelter, they’re not going to make any money,” Lincoln said. “They call. I come — kind of like the Domino’s Pizza Guy.”
Bonds told Officer Lincoln that she was not homeless and he stopped ordering her to leave the area.
Defending CAPSLO’s rules and penalties, Torres and Hill said at a SLO City Council meeting last year that homeless people need structure and management. After the meeting, former Councilman Andrew Carter said that the rule against being on Prado Road should be followed to discourage homeless from bothering business owners.