The uptick in calls the first week of July to the Salinas Police Department was as noticeable to patrol officers as the sight and smell of human excrement was to the people calling to complain. The mystery of why it was happening was solved when police learned that one of the main bathroom and shower locations for the homeless community, the Chinatown Health Services Center, closed as of July 1.
The decision to shutter was not an easy one, says Jill Allen, executive director of nonprofit Dorothy’s Place, which at one time was running the center 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at a cost of $460,000 a year since late 2016.
“Right now we’re at a breaking point,” Allen says. The organization threw “every nickel of discretionary income” at keeping the center open and cut staffing back to one shift a day before the board of directors voted on June 28 it was no longer feasible to continue.
They also tried fundraising to keep the center open, but fell far short of their goal.
“We’re not popular,” Allen says of competition with more heartwarming charities. “We’re not puppies and kids – although we do have children who come to shower with their families.”
The closure caught Salinas city officials off guard, says Community Development Director Megan Hunter. They knew the board was considering a closure, but thought the decision wouldn’t come until July. “We thought there would be a time to transition,” Hunter says.
Allen and city officials met on June 20 to discuss the issue, but the problem, says Hunter, is that the city doesn’t have “large amounts of funding just laying around.” The process for planning the 2019-20 city budget began several months earlier and was approved on June 4.
There’s also a move to look at how homeless services are provided citywide. “Chinatown cannot be the epicenter of homeless services,” Hunter says, adding that best practices include decentralizing those services.
Both Allen and Hunter say they are scrambling to figure out how to reopen the center, even part time, and what to do in the meantime. The city took over paying utilities. (It was already paying rent at a cost of between $24,000-$30,000 annually.) The city’s dedicated homeless services coordinator and Salinas Police patrol officers are currently directing homeless individuals to public bathrooms downtown.
Outreach to other nonprofits is underway, but finding one with trained staff and the necessary insurance is difficult.