California town divided over downtown homeless shelter
Kevin Scanlon walks out of the main coffee shop in downtown Fort Bragg. One block to the left is the ocean and miles of trails along the Mendocino coastline. Scanlon turns right, toward the four-block stretch of small shops selling socks, books and tchotchkes.
“We’re a tourist town now. Logging’s done. Fishing’s done,” said Scanlon, a general contractor who has worked on many of the local buildings. “So we’ve got to keep the integrity of downtown.”
It’s not only tourists who have taken a liking to Fort Bragg. So have the homeless. And this worries Scanlon.
“If you have a lot of transitional people coming, it just turns tourists off,” he said.
Scanlon stops outside the historic Old Coast Hotel. It was vacant for years, until the city approved a grant to the nonprofit Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center to buy it. The agency moved in this summer and began providing case management and mental health services to the homeless. It will eventually use the hotel rooms as transitional housing.
The plans threw the town into an uproar. Scanlon, and more than 1,000 other local residents and business owners, signed a petition to keep the homeless out of the hotel.
“We didn’t say, 'We’re against it.' We said, 'We’re against it here,'” Scanlon said. “And that’s not being prejudiced, just pragmatic.”
The hotel sits at the gateway to the burgeoning downtown commercial district. Scanlon and other opponents said the building should go to a thriving business, like a hotel or a restaurant.
“You could get bed tax. You could get the food tax,” Scanlon said. “That could be a financial gain for the city, as opposed to a financial drain.”
Opponents feel so strongly about the hotel that they filed a lawsuit to block the sale. It failed. They threatened to recall the mayor for supporting the project. That didn’t work. Now they’ve put a measure on next June’s ballot that would ban social services from downtown.
But leaders of the hospitality center said there’s been community pushback at every location they considered.
“Part of it is simply that ‘not in my backyard,’” said Executive Director Anna Shaw.
But when they landed at the Old Coast Hotel, it really hit a nerve.
“I think some people have a feeling that it’s kind of too good for the homeless and the mentally ill,” Shaw said.
The building is more than 100 years old and is considered an architectural gem. The hallway walls are pressed tin. The hotel rooms upstairs still have Victorian details — layered window dressings, wainscoting, marble fireplaces.
Shaw said that when homeless people have a nice place to stay like this, they do better.
“Because people's self-esteem is higher. It’s much harder to throw trash on the floor when the room looks beautiful like this,” Shaw said. “If it’s really squalid, there’s no incentive to behave.”
She said being downtown is also important. It’s easier for people to get to appointments, and it helps reduce stigma when people are integrated into the community.
“Lots of homeless people and people impaired with mental illness feel marginalized,” she said. “It’s important that folk get to come to a place where the value we place on them is expressed through the building.”
But Anne Marie Cesario, a retired social worker, said that’s not the way to combat stigma.
“That’s like using people as guinea pigs in order to further some liberal’s idea about consciousness raising,” she said. “It’s inappropriate.”
Cesario is one of several mental health professionals opposed to the downtown location. She said it’s not private enough, especially for people who suffer from paranoia.
“They don’t want to be seen when they go to the doctor. They don’t want to be seen when they go to the therapist,” she said. “That building is on one of the busiest corners in town, and it’s a four-way stop.”
Now a concerned citizens' group is hoping voters will pass its ballot measure prohibiting social services in the downtown commercial district, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2015.
All the tension and fighting is frustrating for Debbie Gibney, a client of the Hospitality Center, who got help at the Hospitality Center after she lost her job, then her home. Now she’s back on her feet, helping other homeless people at the Old Coast Hotel.
“I’m proud to walk in here,” she said. “Because of the beauty of the building, and the reception that we get here, and the way the staff accepts us and loves us unconditionally.”