Defending your neighbors: Supporters of longtime Oak Park homeless charity push back against anonymous backlash

Panel discussion responds to complaints over Wellspring Women’s Center

This is an extended version of a story that appeared in the June 8, 2017, issue.
The story has been updated to correct figures relating to HIV rates.
Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.

An anonymous NIMBY proved little match last week for the supporters of a nonprofit that has hosted homeless women on a quiet residential street in Oak Park for the past 30 years.

Critics of the Wellspring Women’s Center found themselves outnumbered at a June 1 forum to discuss the charitable organization at the Oak Park Community Center. The meeting was called for in an anonymous letter distributed around the Oak Park neighborhood in the days before. Signed by “A Concerned Neighbor,” the letter berated Wellspring for allowing “drug addicts and homeless” to congregate around its building during the morning hours of 7:30-11:30 a.m., when Wellspring allows guests to visit the center on a drop-in basis.

The letter specifically complained of fights, yelling, marijuana smoking and the storage of personal belongings around the center, but acknowledged that the area had been tidied up a week before, when Wellspring debuted a renovated kitchen that serves breakfast.

The Oak Park Neighborhood Association hosted last Thursday’s panel discussion on the backlash, featuring representatives from Wellspring, a code enforcement official, concerned neighbors, homeless residents and advocates. Breakout sessions provided attendees an opportunity to discuss the letter’s accusations and formulate questions.

While the most vocal attendees largely stood by a nonprofit that has coexisted with homes on the 3400 block of Fourth Avenue, all the panelists agreed there had been some trash and drug use issues around the Wellspring center.

But Sister Sheila Novak, Wellspring’s executive director, took issue with the letter’s assertion that her organization wasn’t responding to complaints. “I know there are concerns,” Novak said. “I hope we can talk about them and seek solutions.”

Offering a concession to the critics, Novak said a Wellspring employee will be tasked with monitoring noise levels outside the center, and added that staff is considering how to address some of the other issues raised by the letter.

Aimee Phelps said she sees both sides of the issue. Late last year, the Oak Park resident and artist tried to make a dent in the controversy by retrofitting three-wheeled pods that look like a cross between an ice cream cart and camper trailer. Phelps and a friend adorned these pods in mural art and provided them to neighborhood homeless residents as mobile sleeping spaces.

The pod project did what so many public homelessness services do—pleasing one faction while pissing off another.

“[Homelessness is] in our face, it’s big, and it’s not just here. What the hell can we do to make this better?” Phelps said at the meeting. “This was their neighborhood before it was ours. I’ve been here 11 years, but this is generational.”

The solutions weren’t coming fast enough for Debbie James, an 18-year resident of Oak Park who attended the meeting. James said she had paid a homeless man to mow her lawn and perform additional yard work while allowing him to camp near her home. When she refused to pay the man in advance, she said, he broke into her house.

“Just yesterday I found somebody had crowbarred … the door and is trying to get into my detached garage,” James said. “Now I’m trying to get help to get my garage door secured. I’m a single woman, living alone. I’ve contemplated getting a gun. I need help, too, so I can be safe.”

Kevin Douglas, a homeless pod recipient, said he also sympathized with both sides. Douglas complained of the trash left by some pod owners near Wellspring. However, he said, the actions of a few shouldn’t reflect upon the local homeless community.

“These are the best things that ever happened to us as far as being homeless,” Douglas said of Wellspring and the mobile sleeping spaces. “Hopefully we can keep our pods [here], those who are keeping it clean and respect the area.”

Melinda Ruger, director of the addiction-focused nonprofit Harm Reduction Services and a formerly homeless Oak Park resident herself, said that the services provided by her organization and Wellspring are integral to giving the disenfranchised a second chance. When HRS began a needle exchange program in Oak Park in 2007, Ruger said, HIV afflicted 32 percent of injection drug users living in the neighborhood. Today, Ruger said, that number is less than 2 percent.

“I got services from HRS in 1997,” Ruger recalled. “They’re one of the reasons I’m still alive today. Our message is that we are all a community whether you’re housed or not housed.”

Wellspring has mostly flown under the radar since two nuns founded the charity in what was then a blighted neighborhood in 1987. But an increasingly pitched debate over homelessness and gentrification in Sacramento has swept up newcomers and longtime operators alike.

Last month, KCRA 3 reported that homeless people were to blame for high levels of E. coli and other forms of bacteria outside the downtown courthouse. The broadcast cited Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard, who told the reporter, “When you have 40 and some nights 80 people, with dogs off leashes, using the perimeter of this courthouse as an outhouse, you’re going to have significant, biohazardous material being deposited there.”

A homeless woman who watched the broadcast told SN&R she felt “great concern that there will be a backlash against the homeless community.” The KCRA 3 reporter didn’t respond to a question asking whether there was any evidence to support the judge’s claim.