Custody battle

Esplanade House caught in the middle of dispute between founders, board

It was like a longtime marriage gone sour.

A vital 26-year relationship ended abruptly last week, when the board of the Community Action Agency of Butte County voted unanimously to sever all ties with the founders of the Esplanade House, a transitional living and healing facility for homeless families in Chico, one of several programs the CAA oversees.

The decision was made primarily in response to the founders’ demand, outlined in an Oct. 23 letter to CAA board members, that the longtime chief executive officer of the CAA, Tom Tenorio, be removed from oversight of the Esplanade House after 23 years in that role.

“We have come to a crossroads,” the founders—Dr. Gary Incaudo and builder Greg Webb—wrote. “If we can’t work out an acceptable partnership with CAA and/or find a new non-profit partner to help us run the program by Dec. 1, 2017, we will be compelled to withdraw all our support for the Esplanade House….”

That support is considerable. The founders have a separate foundation, the Esplanade House Children’s Fund, has come to the Esplanade House’s fiscal rescue on several occasions. It has partially financed certain core positions, funded parenting classes, expanded the computer lab and facilitated a child care center, among other things. In addition, Webb has been closely involved in maintenance of the facility’s buildings.

The founders have spent tens of thousands of dollars of their own money in support of the Esplanade House.

The possible loss of these contributions doesn’t seem to faze Tenorio, however. In a phone interview Tuesday (Nov. 14), he said he’d met with residents the day before and assured them their housing was safe. The loss of the founders’ support “is not going to affect us in a substantial way,” he said.

It was 1990 when Gary Incaudo and Greg Webb first met and learned they both wanted to give back to the community by doing something about homelessness in Chico, and especially homeless families. They began working to convert a dilapidated 12-unit motel on the north Esplanade into a transitional facility. Webb did the remodeling, while Incaudo, an allergist, put a healing program together and, with the help of public-relations maven Lynne Bussey, put out the word.

One important step was to hook up with the CAA, which provided the organizational and structural tools for soliciting grant funds and managing operations.

It worked … sort of. The idea was to help homeless families by providing shelter as well as immersing them in a panoply of services to address the factors that led them to become homeless: drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, lack of education and parenting skills, poor health and legal problems.

But the site was not good, as it turned out, so the founders decided to create a bigger and better facility, one that provided a safe environment, a day care center and, as Bussey writes in her online history of the Esplanade House, “a strict on-site program developed for those families who truly wanted to change their lives.”

Webb found and purchased a site just to the north and financed a $4 million, 60-unit facility off East Shasta Avenue that he eventually sold to the CAA for costs. Since then, the Esplanade House has been a Chico success story, with numerous families graduating from the healing program and going on to live productive, healthy lives.

Tenorio became CEO of the CAA in 1994. Troubles started in the late aughts, when the recession hit and federal funding decreased. This loss was compounded a few years later, when a governmental preference for “housing first” programs cut into funding for the Esplanade House, which insists on sobriety as a precondition for admission.

The founders believe Tenorio failed to respond to these developments in a timely manner and further exacerbated financial losses by failing to investigate and seek out new funding sources.

The founders knew “far in advance that HUD’s Housing First/rapid rehousing approach was going to create a funding crisis” in 2016, Incaudo writes in a separate letter to the CAA board, “and so offered to provide $100,000 to soften the impact while alternatives were sought. Tom’s answer was to evict 20 families and to cut staffing….”

Not true, Tenorio responded. “We didn’t take the $100,000 because we didn’t need it,” he insisted. Instead, the CAA formed a partnership with the Butte County Housing Authority to set up an HA-funded voucher program for the 20 families. Twelve of them used their vouchers to continue living at the Esplanade House, while eight chose to move elsewhere, Tenorio said.

The founders have many other complaints about how the Esplanade House was managed—or, as they allege, mismanaged. What does seem clear is that, for many former employees, working under Tenorio was difficult. At the founders’ request, they wrote about their experiences to provide evidence for ousting Tenorio. “He was the worst boss I ever had,” said one former supervisor. Another, LaVon Hernandez, who worked as a senior case manager at the Esplanade House, writes that her “experience at CAA was one I will never forget and hopefully one that I will never have to repeat.”

Gloria Rodgers spent eight years working at the Esplanade House, five of them as program operations director. Tenorio was a “difficult, nonsupportive supervisor,” she writes. He was often critical and demeaning to staff. Evaluations were consistently very late.” Turnover was high.

Doug Benander isn’t buying it. A member of the CAA board of directors for seven years, he is currently its chairman.

Board members read the letters and researched the charges, he said by telephone. “The accusations aren’t substantiated.” They most likely came from “disgruntled employees,” he said. He accused the founders of wanting to take over the Esplanade House but warned they didn’t have the skills to run it.

“Why did they wait for 23 years” to do this? he asked.

In the meantime, he’s solidly behind Tenorio. “There’s probably nobody more qualified to run a community action agency than Tom,” he said.