(UPDATE 3 p.m. July 28: Additional information from the Imperial County Board of Supervisors meeting.)
Members of the El Centro City Council blasted their police chief recently for the way a countywide organization is spending state grant money meant to aid the region’s homeless population, calling the organization a “bureaucracy of waste” where emergency funds are being funneled to “couch surfers” rather than the chronically homeless.
Police Chief Brian Johnson, who is a member of the nine-person Imperial Valley Continuum of Care Council executive board, was updating the City Council on July 21 about his board’s use and plans for millions of dollars in state funding for emergency homeless programs — most of which has gone unspent after a year — that are being administered by the IVCCC when council members made those comments.
Of some $4.6 million the IVCCC was awarded in July 2019, only half a million dollars of those funds have been spent, Johnson said. He blamed the delay in spending the funds on local nonprofit organizations’ inability to work with the IVCCC in navigating the complicated grant-application process.
Despite Johnson mentioning the IVCCC’s plan to spend the remaining $3 million of state Homeless Emergency Assistance Protection grant funds on capital-improvement projects, El Centro City Council Member Cheryl Viegas-Walker expressed grave concerns about the organization’s effectiveness to date.
“Listening to how the project has been defined, the intent is not to provide a solution for our chronic homelessness (problem). It’s to provide for low-income (housing) or for folks who have a risk of homelessness, or something like that,” Viegas-Walker said. “Too much of the emergency funds have gone to help ‘couch surfers’ instead of the chronically homeless.”
“It is the bureaucracy of waste, in my opinion,” El Centro City Council Member Jason Jackson said furiously.
“Of that $4.6 million in HEAP funds, $400,000 went to rapid rehousing, $45,000 for emergency shelters. Vouchers, food, case management, and counseling services got $350,000. $365,000 went to homeless prevention,” Johnson said, mentioning Imperial Valley College received HEAP funding to prevent college students slipping into homelessness.
Meanwhile, some homeless advocates took exception with Johnson’s characterization on why the funds have gone largely unspent.
“Our grants were all in by the deadline,” Jessica Solorio, founder of Spread the Love Charity, said July 24. “The grant-application process takes time, and you can’t blame that on local nonprofits. That’s just the way grants work.”
Spread the Love applied for $144,000 in HEAP grant funds on June 30, 2019, and received the money in April.
“This money has really helped us out. It was our largest grant to date.” Solorio then landed a few jabs at the city of El Centro’s actions: “It’s wrong for El Centro to bash the IVCCC. The city should apply for its own grants instead of relying on another entity.”
The process was so complicated that some smaller local nonprofits were cut out of the process.
“The thing is, my organization is so small. I did not know how to do all those plan proposals. It was too much for me,” said Maribel Padilla, co-founder of the Brown Coalition, which feeds the homeless seven days a week, primarily at Border Friendship Park in Calexico.
“For some of the programs, I would have to spend money, turn in receipts and wait to be reimbursed by the county. My organization does not have that kind of funding,” Padilla said during a July 24 interview.
During the July 21 council meeting, council member Jackson alleged the IVCCC of squandering funds.
“The thing we are missing in Imperial County is transitional housing, and although we spent $196,000 for 36 (motel) rooms for three months, to me that’s a complete waste of money, because without transitional housing all you are doing is putting somebody in a room and kicking them out on the street three months later,” Jackson said.
Johnson agreed with Jackson and said to meet the need for transitional housing, the IVCCC awarded $3 million of the HEAP grant funds in July 2019 to a capital-improvement project in Heber where 24 housing units would be built that are eligible to use for low-income housing and for people experiencing homelessness.
Despite funds having been awarded more than a year ago, ground has not yet broken on the project, Johnson said.
Solorio, a proponent of the voucher program, explained why vouchers are only one step in the process.
“Vouchers were a much-needed program. We needed to do it in this order. There has to be stepping stones to complete this long journey. This is one more step before transitional housing and, ultimately, permanent residence,” Solorio said.
Until 2018, Catholic Charities managed the IVCCC and received around $300,000 to $400,000 a year in funding until the Imperial County Board of Supervisors directed the county’s Social Services Department take over managerial responsibilities of the organization, Johnson said.
He credited county employees for navigating the complicated grant process and increasing the IVCCC’s funding to more than $1 million in 2019, of which $150,000 went to rapid rehousing, $408,000 to emergency housing intervention, $119,00 to system support, $100,000 to street outreach and $10,000 to housing placement and retention. To meet U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations, the IVCCC spent another $265,000 for administrative expenses.
In March 2020, the IVCCC received another $528,000 from state and federal emergency funding sources.
“Imperial County Welfare and the Area Agency for Aging were the primary recipients of these funds, receiving $170,000 for vouchers and different rental-assistance programs. Thirty-seven individuals have received these services,” Johnson said. “This funding also went towards the (10) trailers (from the state) used to house homeless with COVID-19 at the (I.V.) Fairgrounds that have housed 11 people (since) May.”
Johnson said the IVCCC has two other federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grants in the works.
“The IVCCC just received an Emergency Solutions Grant (through the state Department of Housing and Community Development) for $322,000 to be used for some form of housing. We decided on the recipient last week but have not announced recipient yet,” Johnson said. “We just applied for another CARES Act grant for over $1 million to help homeless find housing, which should be infused in the community within the next 30 to 90 days.”
Despites the IVCCC’s surplus of COVID-19 grant money intended to house the homeless, county homeless numbers are up 2.6 percent.
“County numbers for those sheltered went from 188 in 2019 to 193 in 2020. Homeless numbers went from 1,225 in 2019 to 1,344 in 2020,” said Johnson, before dropping the most disturbing number yet: “In 2016, there were only 128 sheltered and 252 unsheltered in the county.”
“From an economic standpoint, we have the highest unemployment rate in the state, if not No. 2. All of these compounding factors make this an issue we can never give up,” Johnson said.
When Viegas-Walker asked Johnson if the public would have an opportunity to review the IVCCC’s strategic plan, the answer was a gentle “no.”
“I would say, this one (the strategic plan) has been a long time coming. There has been a lot of sweat equity put into this one. Let’s let this one be published and maybe we can take another bite at that apple next year,” Johnson said.
During the Imperial County Board of Supervisors meeting on July 28, El Centro resident Pete Rodriguez went before the county board in public comment to refute basically everything said by the El Centro council. The county board oversees the IVCCC.
“I’ve seen your staff do such an outstanding job in working with the homeless program with the funding. Granted, there are some obstacles, but I think I’ve seen the actual work and the obstacles being overcome. I didn’t appreciate the comments that it was a waste of bureaucracy,” Rodriguez said. “As you can see on Fourth Street, on the parking lot of Stark Field, there is a homeless camp that I’ve addressed to the city in an email previously before the article came out and they have yet to address that issue at all. I think they should focus on watering their own grass before pointing out other people’s shortcomings.
Referring a couple of unrelated topics, Rodriguez called the El Centro City Council “bullies” when it comes to how the council criticizes the county over its handling of issues like COVID-19 and other topics.
“In essence, I see them as bullies, and if you want to change the world you have to stand up to the bullies of the world. They’re down the street, two blocks down. They can’t handle a situation. I saw again today in the newspaper the city of Calexico approved a tentative plan for senior housing and residential housing, a good plan, and that was the city of Calexico. Why can’t the city of El Centro work on something that’s called transitioning residential housing?” Rodriguez asked rhetorically. “I’ll tell you why, because a year ago they had a presentation that targeted an area of the Mayan Hotel on State, and they didn’t like the idea of residential. I don’t know what they want; condos? The whole building has to be razed.
“So, in closing, I’d like to commend your staff. In the worst crisis of our lives, I have not seen my mother since the week before Mother’s Day, and that’s the arrangement we have made to keep her safe. Sacrifices have to be made, but we will come through. But I do not like finger pointing or throwing county staff under the bus at all,” he added, again referring to El Centro city officials.