Plan lacks transparency

We have more questions than answers about the Jesus Center’s efforts to centralize homeless services

Last week, leaders at the Torres Community Shelter asked the Chico City Council to slow things down when it comes to moving the centrally located Jesus Center to south Chico and creating a sort of homeless services clearinghouse on the same city-owned property surrounded primarily by commercial and industrial businesses.

It’s an ambitious project, based on what we heard from City Manager Mark Orme and Laura Cootsona, executive director of the Jesus Center. Among other things, as the CN&R reported last week (see “Under one roof,” Newslines, Nov. 9), Cootsona mentioned plans for a day center, a medical and dental clinic, and a shelter large enough to hold 100 beds and additional rooms for families.

The effort was mostly couched as a consolidation of services, but based on what we saw, it looks a lot like a plan to push this population out of the city center. What made that crystal clear is the fact that the Torres Shelter has been largely left out of the discussion. To say that’s odd is an understatement. Consider, if you will, that the existing shelter—the only year-round facility of its kind—houses more individuals by far than any other agency in the county. Further consider that the shelter is located literally yards from the proposed new Jesus Center site.

That’s not to say establishing those services in proximity to one another is a bad idea. In a lot of ways it makes sense, especially as it relates to a day center, the creation of which the CN&R has advocated for years.

Our issue here is that the city, in its laser-focused goal to draw the poor to a less visible location, seems to have put all of its eggs in one basket. We aren’t wholly convinced the Jesus Center has the experience, vision and resources to properly develop and run such operations.

Indeed, is the Jesus Center the best option for that job? That’s a real question, and we don’t have an answer. That’s partially because the city, as has become its modus operandi in recent years, runs important community topics by the public only as an afterthought.

When considering the Jesus Center as the potential lead in this effort, it’s important to remember that it is a religious organization that relies mostly on community support. There’s nothing wrong with that—per se. However, the Jesus Center does not have a history of attaining the federal funding that would seem essential to establishing and running what was pitched during that recent meeting.

Cootsona has noted in the past that the Jesus Center’s lack of reliance on such public funds means she has the freedom to use the organization’s private contributions as she sees fit. But again, there’s the rub, because we know the Jesus Center has allocated funds in a way that seems to run counter to the government’s approach to addressing the issue: through housing first. Case in point: a consultancy with Robert Marbut, a controversial figure who is known nationally for, among other things, dismissing housing first and calling on communities to stop feeding the poor.

How much was Marbut paid by the Jesus Center? We don’t know, because Cootsona refuses to tell the CN&R. We do know that he was paid more than $100,000 for his work in Sarasota County, Fla., where, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, the region “ended up with very little direct benefit.” We should note that this isn’t the only instance in which the Jesus Center has been secretive about its budget. This newspaper’s attempts to simply report on the success of its annual Run for Food event has been met with a refusal to share that information as well.

Our view: Before the city agrees to a lease of the taxpayer-owned property, there needs to be a much more thorough vetting of this potential project. It should include not only the stakeholders (the Torres Shelter, the Chico Homeless Action Team, etc.), but also input from the public. Bottom line, the city must insist on transparency and accountability from the Jesus Center and any other organization that wants to rely on public resources. Right now, that’s not happening.