"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The half-hour program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Tim Davis, president of the Santa Clarita Community Development Corp. the nonprofit organization that runs the Santa Clarita homeless shelter. Questions are paraphrased and some answers are abbreviated for length.
On Tuesday the City Council will decide whether the shelter shall operate from Dec. 1 to March 15 at the Via Princessa Metrolink station parking lot in Canyon Country.
Signal: "Santa Clarita Community Development Corp." that sounds business-oriented, but in fact your organization runs the Santa Clarita homeless shelter.
Davis: That's correct. We developed the Santa Clarita Community Development Corp. we call it the CDC about seven, almost eight years ago now, specifically to look at how to service the needs of needy people in the SCV. We've been focusing on, since 1997, specifically the homeless people in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Signal: Do we have a homeless problem in Santa Clarita?
Davis: Yeah, you know, in 1997, the City Council decided to open what we called that year the El Niño shelter, in recognition that there is a homeless population. Nobody knew how big or how small the population was, but with the advent of the El Niño winter, we decided that we had to so something. Since then, working with Frank Ferry, who was mayor a couple of years ago, we formed an organization called the Homeless Advisory Task Force, and the HATF went out and did, for the first time, a scientific study of how many homeless people there are in Santa Clarita.
With the help of about a dozen city and county and private organizations, we surveyed the city and determined that during that week, in March of 2002, on the average night there were 179 people homeless in Santa Clara. About half of those are kids under age 16. We also took a definition and said, if you missed one check, that would put you at risk of being homeless, and we determined that we had 1,641 people who were at risk of being homeless, and a little over half of those were children. So yes, a population does exist.
Signal: How many people have been using the shelter on a given night?
Davis: We open on the first of December every year Los Angeles County and the city define when winter is here, so that's usually the first of December and (it) runs through the 15th of March. That's 105 nights. The first week we open, the word is getting around to people that we are indeed open, and we'll have 10, 15 people come to the shelter on a given night. When we've been open for a while, we'll start hitting 25 to 30 people a night, and we usually max out at about 40 single people in the shelter at any given time throughout that 105-night period.
Signal: If there are 179 homeless people and only 40 are using the shelter, where do the others go?
Davis: Well, where are they during the summertime, when we are not open? There's 179 people who are homeless year-round in the city (that) is the best estimate we have and most of those people are either living in their cars because most of them do have cars; they'll be parked out behind one of our shopping centers or someplace. A few will be sleeping on park benches. I've seen a few sleeping behind some of the grocery stores; they scrounge through the refuse back there. We've had a number of people stay with us for three or four years, when we've been open, who live in the arroyos they call (it) camping or tenting they live up in the little valleys. We've seen quite a population, usually of young people, who are living underneath the overpasses on (state Route) 14 and (Interstate) 5. On a given winter night, if the weather is not too bad, a lot of people prefer to have their own independence and stay out. ... Probably a quarter of them will actually come to the shelter for a winter night.
Signal: Is there a need for the shelter to go year-round?
Davis: That's a real difficult question to answer. Because you have 105 nights and we have limited hours you can operate, we can only offer certain services. The model we're with right now says, you don't really have the ability to break (what) we call the cycle of homelessness.
There's something that is causing a person to be homeless not many people volunteer to be homeless and so you need to be able to find out what causes that and, with a professional case manager, put together a package that helps that person break the reasons that he or she is homeless.
The current model doesn't allow us to do that very well. If we just operated a year-round shelter like that, we're not really attacking the root of the problem. So right now I wouldn't even say that we'd want to do an emergency shelter operation year-round.
Signal: What kind of services are you providing to break that pattern?
Davis: Right now, we with county mental health and (several other organizations) when a person comes to the shelter, we take about a two-hour period to do an intake interview with the person. A professional case manager or a counselor (or) therapist sits the person down. ... We try to determine, what are the difficulties and it's never one difficulty that are causing that person to be homeless? Then we try to discover what it is we can do.
Sometimes a person needs some education; sometimes a person needs a clean set of clothes to go out and get a job interview; sometimes they need the references to go get job interviews. So we'll try to give (that) help to them. Sometimes the person needs mental, physical or medical attention to get in a condition where they can actually get a job and then get on to renting an apartment, those types of things. So it's case by case, individual by individual. We set up a program to go work with them. In some cases it's something as mundane as Alcoholics Anonymous to help a person get sober.
Signal: Do you screen people? Are there any types of people whom you won't permit to stay there?
Davis: No. Since we operate an emergency winter shelter, the only screening we do, if you want to call it that, is if you misbehave, you will be expelled from the shelter. So if you come up on the third of January, on a cold winter night, you come to the shelter, we will admit you. If you haven't been there previously, then we'll do the two-hour intake. If you've been there previously, we'll ask you to sign in.
At the intake, we will have gone over all of the shelter rules; you will have to sign that you acknowledge the shelter rules (and) understand the shelter rules, If you violate the shelter rules, we only have three forms of discipline: The first time, if it's a minor infraction, you'll be advised, be warned. If it's a more serious infraction or you've done it repeatedly, then we'll ask you to leave the shelter; we'll suspend you anywhere from one to three or four or five days. If it's a serious infraction, like bringing drugs or alcohol onto the campus, then we will expel you from the shelter for the winter. But anybody who shows up at the door will be admitted to the emergency winter shelter. The only way you won't be admitted is if you have been expelled or suspended.
Signal: At the risk of stereotyping, you're talking about having people sign an agreement not to misbehave. Aren't there situations where perhaps somebody isn't literate? Or where they have a criminal past?
Davis: This is a word of honor system. Let's take your examples one at a time. If a person is not literate, that's why I say the intake process takes as long as two hours and in some cases longer because we have had that situation, where you have to sit down with a person and go over, either in English or in Spanish, frequently, and tell them exactly what it means and make sure they understand, as best we can hope they can understand, because some people have different skill capabilities. But you'll sit down and do that so they know what's expected of them.
While they're in the shelter, we also have what we call the Volunteer Safety Patrol. They're our volunteers from the city of Santa Clarita, from the community, (who walk) around the area, wearing like Caltrans reflective vests and carrying a flashlight. They visit with our clients and try to help them understand what is appropriate behavior and what is not appropriate behavior and they also know that we care and we're watching.
If the person has a criminal background, there's no way we can know that unless they tell us that.
Signal: You don't work with the Sheriff's Department and run a background check?
Davis: No we do not. That might be a good idea, but who would pay for it? How would you operate it? How would you ensure privacy? A lot of questions go along with that. And so at this time we don't operate any kind of a background check.
On the other side of that, the Sheriff has notified us once, in the past, that they were looking for (a person) they thought was a client. We cooperated with them. They came on site, arrested the individual and took him off. So we have very close cooperation with the Sheriff's Department. But in terms of investigating people before they can enter the shelter, we don't do that.
Signal: What about homeless families with children? How do you protect the kids from other adults?
Davis: First of all, we don't want to have children in the homeless shelter. So we started, three years ago, operating a separate program for families. At the same time that we're running the homeless shelter for single people, male and female, we also run a program for any person who comes to the shelter with a child under the age of 16. So if a single mom or a single dad or a nuclear family comes up and says they need shelter, we have an agreement with a local motel and we put them in the motel.
They do the same intake processes. We have the same rules and regulations that they have to abide by. We do have a little more visitation and a little more time we can spend with the families, as I mentioned, trying to break the cycle of homelessness. We can actually get more people and more counseling help to them than the normal population in the shelter. So we actually have a better success rate of helping families get jobs, get apartments, get out of the homeless program, for at least that winter.
Signal: So your organization pays the motel bill?
Davis: That's correct.
Signal: Who is the CDC and how did it get started?
Davis: In 1993 a lady came to Santa Clarita. She was homeless. She had a 6-month-old baby. She went to St. Clare's Catholic Church out in Canyon Country and asked for help. The people there had sufficient money that they could give her a couple of nights in a motel room, but they couldn't do anything else. So a number of the churches were searching for something to do to help this lady.
That came to the attention of a group in Santa Clarita called the Interfaith Council. The Interfaith Council is a loose organization of about 20 different faith communities in the city; they organized a meeting in November of 1993 at St. Clare's to address this problem of, what do we do for the situation like we just faced with this lady and her baby? We formed two committees at that meeting; one was the funding committee and the other was the Santa Clarita Shelter Committee...
Through a number of good experiences and fortunate circumstances we met people who advised us. The first thing we needed to do was become a legal entity, and then we needed to become a not-for-profit, so we've taken care of all those legal requirements. In 1997, when we knew the El Niño winter was coming, the Interfaith Council and some people from St. Stephen's Episcopal Church went to the City Council and asked that we open a shelter. The Interfaith Council (said it would) like for the CDC to actually operate and manage the shelter for us. So we've been doing that ever since.
The CDC, as I said, is a community development corporation, a California not-for-profit. We've got 19 directors on our board. Nobody gets paid. It's all volunteer work. We do hire staff during the winter to operate the shelter, but everybody else is a non-paid volunteer.
Signal: How did you get into this? What do you do for a living?
Davis: Well, take the first piece of that: How did I get involved in this? In the 1980s, when I was on active duty with the Air Force, I was in Honolulu and met a very wonderful man who was operating a program for the homeless in Waikiki. I became involved there and saw that as a mission I could accomplish. When I retired from the Air Force and came here to Santa Clarita, I immediately became involved, trying to set up a homeless program here.
What do I do for a living? I'm the manager of a company in Simi Valley that builds defense electronics. That's what I do too many hours every week, and not enough hours to work on the homeless shelter.
Signal: How many people work for the CDC and how many volunteer?
Davis: In the last six years we've been operating, we've been keeping track of people who come in and volunteer and give us help. We have, in our database, over 3,000 people from Santa Clarita. Santa Clarita is a beautiful city. Three thousand people have come in, they've given time, energy, money, they've brought meals, they've done the Volunteer Safety Patrol, they've done the dreaded overnight duty they've done all kinds of things to operate. When we operate with a staff we usually have five, six people on staff during the winter. Then the 15th of march, we lay them all off.
Signal: So now you want to set up shop again in the Via Princessa Metrolink Station parking lot. You've been there how long?
Davis: We've been at the Metrolink parking lot just last winter.
Signal: You were seeking a five-year lease agreement from the city, but the Planning Commission said they'd rather see just one year at a time. Why do you want to stay in that location for five years, and what kind of a message does that send to critics in Canyon Country who want Valencia, Saugus and Newhall to have their turn?
Davis: Let's go back and talk about where we've been. In 1997 the city loaned us a building they had at the Sports Complex. We knew then that it was scheduled to be rehabilitated and turned into (an) office facility. So we operated there for three years in that building, and then ... the money and the plans (came) together to rehab that building. For the next two years we operated from the parking lot in modular buildings that the city rented at the Sports Complex; then that got turned into the aquatics park. We knew all along that was going to happen.
We've been looking for a permanent place to be since day one. It's a difficult situation to find a place that meets all the criteria for all the neighbors and the City Council and the planning commissioners, (to) get everybody in agreement on a place. We haven't found that place yet. So last year, when we could no longer use the Sports Complex, the city said, let's use the parking lot at the Metrolink station. What we've decided to do is go back to the city and say, it's very difficult for you, the city, to, year by year by year, have to address this question of where you're going to put the homeless shelter.
Signal: You hear the same complaints over and over.
Davis: Sure. We look at it, that the city has to invest four ways. First of all, the council has to spend a lot of time dealing with the issue. The city staff has to spend a lot of time dealing with it. We've been getting either facilities in kind or cash to go rent a facility, and that's $40,000 to $50,000 out of the general fund every year. And then the Planning Commission and the City Council have to spend their political capital to try to arrange something every year.
Our approach is, why don't we try to find one place for five years, get that set up and operating? In that five years we don't have to come back and eat up the city's time, nor our volunteer time, to figure out where we're going to be next year. That allows us to put more energy into finding that permanent (location).
You ask, why five years? Well, first, it's going to take some time to find the landlord who will either sell us the property or lease us the property. Then it's going to take some time to get the use permits for that property, and then it's going to take time to design the facility, let the contracts, get it built and occupy it. I see that from the permit being granted until the building is up and running, that's easily a two-year process. So we've asked for sufficient time for us to get out, find the place, and get it through that permitting process, get it up and running, and then move into that particular building. If it takes less than five years, we'll gladly vacate the Metrolink station. If it takes the entire five years, well, we've just got to work very hard to make sure it doesn't take five years.
Signal: What other specific locations have you looked at?
Davis: We've looked at 31 locations and the city has looked at seven other locations. We looked at the corner of Pine and San Fernando; that was a mortuary.
Signal: What's wrong with that?
Davis: It's not available. When we looked at it, it was vacant. We tried to acquire that back in the 1993-94 time frame. The person got a better offer than what we could provide to them. We looked at the Honey House up on Sierra Highway. It's really not usable. It's a two-story building; you'd have to really gut the whole thing and rebuild it so it meets the (requirements of the) Americans with Disabilities Act. That would be very expensive, and then, it's a small building. It would not meet our needs out there. We had someone recommend a place to us out on San Francisquito Canyon. You had to ford the stream to get to the place, so that wouldn't be very accessible to the people we'd be serving. We looked at the parking lot in Porta Bella
Signal: The Santa Clarita Metrolink station?
Davis: Next to it. The city staff advised that the city is not interested in breaking that up until they have a complete solution. So they would be against it, even if we could strike a deal with the owners. The city looked at the Metrolink parking lot out there and said much more of the parking lot is used on a daily basis than, for example, out at Via Princessa.
Signal: OK, but the Santa Clarita Metrolink station is not as close to homes and it's not as close to businesses as Via Princessa, right?
Davis: That's true. It's farther away. But on the other hand, the Via Princessa station is only close to two businesses, and neither of them are objecting. It's always a trade-off as to where you can be. You may recall, three years ago we actually got the lease on a storefront operation (on Sierra Highway) in Canyon Country. Not many homes nearby; not a lot of industry; and the Planning Commission did approve the conditional use permit, but the retail operators which there were probably eight or 10 objected. (They) didn't want it there, and the City Council agreed with them. So we're looking for a place the use permit situation will be very difficult. No matter where you go, it's going to be close to somebody's interest, so we're trying to find a balance where it's far enough away.
Signal: Vista del Cañon homeowners have voiced some of the strongest criticism. One of their concerns is for kids walking to school at La Mesa Junior High. How will you address that?
Davis: What the Planning Commission has directed is that we put some kind of a guard duty in that area, and we're working with the city right now to define what the hours will be, exactly what authority they will have. We will most likely get one of the local security services ... to do that. What authorities will they have, what reporting responsibilities will they have we're working those out with the city right now on how to go about meeting those conditions.
Signal: How do you pay for those things? Where does the CDC get its money?
Davis: ... We have three sources of funding. There are grants that come from private organizations, and also from public organizations. For example, there's an organization called the L.A. Homeless Services Authority. We apply ever year, we compete, and we get grants from them to operate. That's a combination of city, county and federal money that they administer to us, but it's on a grant basis.
We also have private organizations that give us grants. We have fund-raising events. Every year we have a Run for Shelter, and in the fall we have a golf tournament. And then we have some small events where we sell homeless shelter pins at various different venues in the city throughout the year. Then last, we have a lot of what we call "free will" donations. All over the city we have various clubs and organizations, churches, that will just give us money. Not a week goes by that we don't go to the mailbox and find a check from some organization just free-will-donated to the homeless shelter.
Signal: You mention church support. In some parts of the country, churches operate homeless shelters on their own grounds. Why not here?
Davis: I think you'd have to dig just a little bit deeper into that question. If the concern is, you don't want to be near residences, find a church that's not in the middle of a residential area. How many hundreds or maybe thousands of people would be concerned about having a homeless shelter next door? And will the use permit that the church has allow them to operate, or must we go through the use-permitting process to get the church to do that?
One of the things that we don't want to do you mentioned La Mesa we don't want to be near a school. That's just common sense. Find a large church that has a large enough, say, parking lot or a fellowship hall, that they could host this, that doesn't also have some kind of a school program right on campus. So, you look at those, and on one hand it sounds alluring, that you would tell the churches, you go and do this job, but when you look just below the surface, you'd say, how could they? How could they get permission from the City Council or the Planning Commission to actually open a homeless shelter?
I look at Santa Clarita United Methodist (Church). On two sides of it (are) residences, on a third side is a school, and across the street are seven or eight retail stores. I don't think you would ever get the use permit approved, even if the church was willing to do it.
Signal: What kind of policing problems have you had at the shelter?
Davis: I would say we've never had a policing problem. We do have people who, for one reason or another, will disobey the rules. And we have to ask them to leave. Several occasions we've had in the last six years where the person says, "I'm not going to leave." In that case we've had to call the Sheriff and ask them if they'd escort the person off the property. In the vast majority of cases, as soon as we make the phone call to the Sheriff, they leave of their own volition. A couple of times the Sheriff did have to pick the person up and escort them off the property.
The concept that some people have in their minds that there are drunken brawls at the homeless shelter, that's simply never happened in the last six years.
Signal: What's your ideal location for a permanent shelter?
Davis: What we are looking for ... we need to be distant from residences and most businesses, and then what we need is about a 10,000-square-foot building that we would operate 105 nights a year as an emergency winter shelter.
Signal: Do you want to be in the Valencia Industrial Center?
Davis: If we found a proper-sized facility in the industrial center, that would work perfectly for us. We would have no difficulty with that.
Signal: Some people worry that it's only a matter of time until you do have crime problems. How do you respond?
Davis: The way we operate the shelter is a great break to anything like that ever occurring in our shelter. As I've mentioned before, we have the Volunteer Safety Patrol. We will have two or three staff on site when we open up in the evening and when we discharge people in the morning. We'll usually have one staff person spend the night, sometimes two. But ... over the course of an evening, we'll have anywhere from 10 to 25 or 30 volunteers on site. So it's obvious we care; it's obvious we're also watching what's going on in the shelter.
You may remember from previous conversations or information in the papers, we have never cooked a meal. All of our meals are brought in by volunteers. The volunteers may come in with five people to serve dinner, or they may be coming in with 25 people to serve the dinner. We have a very hands-on presence with our clients.
I made the comment to the Planning Commission that we are self-policing. Not that we have people walking around with badges and those kinds of things; it's just, we have a lot of caring people 3,000 volunteers from the city of Santa Clarita walking through the shelter at night, watching, helping, talking to people, and the problems never get a chance to materialize.
Signal: How would people help?
Davis: The easiest way is to call our hotline, 259-1298 ... and we will put you in contact with the right people to sign you up to be a volunteer. If you want to help raise funds, we'll get you in contact with the right people to do that. If you want to help interface with the city, the council, whatever, we'll get you in contact with the people to help you do that. 259-1298.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m. and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.