Esplanade House takes a hit

The Esplanade House loses federal funding as homeless strategy changes

Eloise Campbell, a program manager at the Esplanade House, is worried that the loss of $150,000 in grant funding could lead to fewer services provided.

Eloise Campbell, a program manager at the Esplanade House, is worried that the loss of $150,000 in grant funding could lead to fewer services provided.

Photo by Ken Smith

On Tuesday (Oct. 20) at 8 a.m., a number of parents stood outside of their apartment doorways at the Esplanade House, attending to their school-bound children, ensuring backpacks were packed and coats zipped up against the crisp autumn chill.

It was a scene typical of what one might expect at any Chico apartment complex, but for many residents of the Esplanade House—a transitional housing facility for families who’ve suffered from homelessness, disability and addiction—simple moments like these are not to be taken for granted.

“We have a lot of families here who have formerly been involved with Child Protective Services,” said Eloise Campbell, program manager at the Esplanade House. “Our program has helped parents get into housing, find some stability and self-sufficiency, reunite with their children and start their lives over for the past 22 years.”

Campbell credits much of the program’s success with its emphasis on sobriety. Ironically, that emphasis is why the organization recently lost its eligibility for $150,000 in federal funding it has received each year since 1998, and which staff at the Esplanade House and its parent nonprofit—the Community Action Agency of Butte County—hope the community will help pitch in to replace.

The funding, known as the Emergency Solutions Grant, is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of the federal government’s attempts to combat homelessness. According to rules enacted this year, eligible programs cannot require participants to meet specific criteria, such as the Esplanade House’s rule that participants be sober for 30 days prior to entering housing, and remain sober and participate in relapse prevention programs for the duration of their stay.

Adding such caveats to the grant is part of a greater move by federal and state officials toward a “Housing First” model of addressing homelessness. Rather than moving individuals through different levels of transitional housing, the Housing First approach attempts to remove barriers (i.e., sobriety and mental health requirements) to place individuals directly into their own independent living situation.

Housing First began in Los Angeles in 1988 and gained momentum based on measurable American and international successes over the past few decades. The federal government began moving toward the Housing First and rapid rehousing models in 2008, with subsequent legislation calling for its incremental implementation.

The Esplanade House was started in 1991 by developer Greg Webb and physician Gary Incaudo. After their involvement in a failed attempt by local churches to start a homeless shelter, the two kept the effort alive, eventually opening in a converted 12-unit motel on The Esplanade. The organization’s current, 58-unit facility broke ground in 2001. Over the years, hundreds of families have “graduated” from the program, which Campbell said takes most participants 18 months to three years.

She explained the program consists of two phases. During the first one, participants are given a case manager and develop a self-sufficiency plan, attend counseling for dependency, abuse or other issues, and take life skills, finance and parenting classes. They also are offered assistance in obtaining a GED or clearing up legal issues, when needed. For phase two, they move to new digs on the complex’s west side, lease a subsidized apartment and are offered additional help with education and employment.

Campbell said by not taking into account participants’ credit ratings, previous evictions, or disabilities, the program does address Housing First’s attempts to remove barriers. However, sobriety is central to the program’s success.

“Once they get in, we feel very strongly it needs to be a sober living environment, and the residents want that, too,” she said. “They’re trying to change their lives, and if their neighbor is getting high while they’re trying to remain sober, that is going to be very difficult for them. If someone chooses to use, we do ask them to leave, but give them referrals for rehab. And if they successfully complete that, they can come back.

“We help restore families, but doing that requires us to have high expectations,” she continued, noting sobriety is essential to good parenting. “This is not just housing, it’s a complete program, and you’re expected to work through the program.”

Campbell said the federal grant accounted for a full quarter of Esplanade House’s annual budget, which amounts to about $600,000.

“We’re looking for alternate forms of funding, but it looks like we may need to scale back on some of the programs we believe people need,” she said. “But at this point, we’re not willing to switch to the Housing First model.”

Campbell also expressed concerns about how the changes to the grant program might affect the city’s other year-round homeless shelter—The Torres Community Shelter—which also requires guests remain sober.

Torres Shelter Executive Director Brad Montgomery confirmed that the facility is also threatened by the changes.

“We will be impacted,” Montgomery said Tuesday by phone. “We were surprised that we actually got [the grant] this year when Esplanade didn’t. But even since we did, the program has pushed back the next cycle, changed the eligibility criterion and reduced the number of dollars allocated for emergency shelters. It’s looking less and less likely that we’ll be able to get the next round, and will likely be facing the same problem the Esplanade House is now in the near future.”

A number of homeless advocates, nationally and locally, support the Housing First model. The Chico Housing Action Team has expressed support for immediate housing and services that do not require sobriety, as have the organizers of Safe Space, a temporary, cold-weather shelter that’s operated the last two winters.

Even Campbell said she sees its value—especially in larger cities, she noted—but doesn’t feel change should come at the expense of established programs.

“We run a program that has helped a lot of people be able to become independent and to give back to society,” she said. “I don’t understand looking at a successful program and saying, ‘If you want money, then you have to change to fit our model.’”