Screws Tightened on Hospitality House
by Malcolm Macdonald, August 30, 2017
At the conclusion of a five hour Fort Bragg Planning Commission meeting on August 23rd, the City's planning commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of a resolution that placed eighteen special conditions on a use permit for Hospitality House, the McPherson (sic) Street entity that provides beds and meals to an ever growing homeless population. Commissioners Curtis Bruchler and Nancy Swithenbank dissented, apparently for one of two reasons, that the resolution did not go far enough in limiting Hospitality House (HH) and/or that the final wording of the resolution was dropped in their laptops as the Wednesday night meeting commenced.
Following are the special conditions the City of Fort Bragg plans to place on Hospitality House:
1. The total number of overnight guests at the emergency shelter shall not exceed twenty-four each night. An increase in the number of overnight guests is not permitted unless a Minor Use Permit or Use Permit Amendment is applied for and obtained. If this provision is violated, the operator shall pay a code violation fee, as determined by the City’s Fee Schedule for each occurrence of the violation.
2. The emergency shelter operator shall permit periodic inspections by City staff, which may be conducted without prior notification, to ensure that the limitation on the number of overnight guests is not exceeded.
3. Hospitality House shall serve all food on premises. Food shall not be prepared or served “to go” for clients to carry off-site.
4. Hospitality House shall provide at least two 50-gallon trash receptacles on site for clients to dispose of personal trash. Trash cans shall be emptied on a regular basis to ensure sufficient trash capacity.
5. Hospitality House shall provide a restroom facility for non-guest clients starting one hour before the breakfast meal program each day.
6. Hospitality House shall provide a location on Hospitality House premises for clients to gather and wait for the meal program to open. The gathering area shall be available to clients starting one hour before food service each day. The gathering area shall be monitored by Hospitality House staff.
7. Hospitality House shall monitor client behavior on and adjacent to the Hospitality House premises and shall report illegal behavior to the Police Department and cooperate with the Police Department to address client behavior that disturbs the peace. “Adjacent to” means the sidewalk directly in front of the Hospitality House property and the alley directly behind the Hospitality House property.
8. Hospitality House shall establish rules of conduct for clients, aimed at curtailing behaviors that are unlawful and/or disturb the peace. Clients who violate the rules of conduct shall be denied service by Hospitality House in accordance with policies approved by the Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center Board of Directors. The Hospitality House shall establish a “ban list” which identifies individuals who are temporarily and/or permanently banned from the Hospitality House property. The “ban list” shall be shared with the Police Department and the Police Department may recommend the addition of individuals who have been cited and/or arrested for illegal acts occurring in locations other than the Hospitality House premises. The Hospitality House shall abide by the “ban list.” Closed loop surveillance cameras shall be installed in the interior and exterior public spaces of the Hospitality House. With regard to sharing video footage with the Police Department, Hospitality House will comply with their obligations to their clients under state and federal privacy laws, including but not limited to HIPAA.
9. The Hospitality House rules of conduct shall prohibit drug use and drinking on Hospitality House property. Clients that violate these rules of conduct shall not be served meals and/or provided with a room for the evening.
10. The Hospitality House shall post signs on the front and back property entrances that prohibit drug use, drinking, intoxication and loitering. The signs shall also provide a phone number to reach a member of the Hospitality House staff during Hospitality House operating hours from 4:00 pm to 9:00 am.
11. The Extreme Weather Shelter shall not be operated from the Hospitality House.
12. The Hospitality House shall be managed by a competent person with at least twenty hours training.
13.The Hospitality House manager shall be responsible for oversight of all activities on the premises and shall work to minimize the negative impacts of the facility and its clients on the surrounding neighborhood.
14. The Hospitality House shall have a trained person on-site at all times when clients are present.
15. The Hospitality House Management shall cooperate with the Police Department and Police Officers when they respond to com plaints and calls for service at the Hospitality House, or when undertaking investigations at the Hospitality House.
16. The Hospitality House shall not expand the hours of meal service. Meal service shall be limited to 20,000 meals per year (the 2017 use rate).
17. Other homeless services currently offered at the facility shall not be intensified or expanded, except for showers and laundry services.
18. The Hospitality House shall not offer new services that attract additional clients to the facility at other times of day or otherwise intensify the utilization of the facility, including but not limited to: counseling, educational services, mental health services, mail service, computer access, food pantry, etc.
The last minute changes only amounted to a few words in conditions 1, 2, 8, and 12, but the attorneys for the City and HH's out of area lawyer devoted much time to over-explaining these few words to the planning commissioners. In some respects Hospitality House and its Board of Directors got away easy. Most of the conditions listed are little more than common sense and should have been adhered to already. In a letter from HH's attorney to the Fort Bragg Planning Commission and the Community Development Director, Marie Jones, HH refused to accept any blame for the myriad number of nuisances caused by HH clients anywhere off the premises of Hospitality House. Quoting from the letter, “[The Planning Commission] has not established any connection between Hospitality House's services and conduct in the vicinity that might be considered a nuisance.”
Those nuisances were enumerated in Planning Commission documents as including fighting, aggressive panhandling, loitering, shouting, arguing, cursing, littering, drunkenness, drug use, obstruction of sidewalks, defacting on private property, and urinating in public. The list goes on and has been witnessed by numerous business owners, residents, City Council members, police officers and this writer. The fact that HH leadership continues to deny these simple truths has to make anyone who lives, works, shops, or visits the alleys and streets near HH skeptical about its future compliance with the special conditions placed upon it. In the document thrust on the Planning Commission and its staff on the day of the meeting HH's attorney wrote, “The Findings, which attribute problematic behavior to Hospitality House guests, are supported only by correspondence from neighbors, police logs and 'police officer testimony' to which MCHC has not had adequate opportunity to respond.”
That has to be near the top of any list of legalese double speak and hogwash! First, the statement uses the word “only” to describe the testimony of police officers and the folks who live and work around Hospitality House. Makes me wonder exactly what greater source HH and its attorney need? Second, the statement says that Hospitality has not had adequate “opportunity” to respond to this. If opportunity equals time, then HH has had at least since last autumn to respond to the first emails from a neighboring business. Part of the reason the emails of complaint had to lead to police officer involvement was because HH refused to respond to the original emails in 2016. A reminder to readers, there were dozens of emails complaining about HH guests' behavior from a single neighboring business as of February, 2017. Readers who can't understand why Linda Ruffing is headed out the door of Fort Bragg's City Hall need to put on their remembering hats and recall that it was Ruffing who deliberately withheld these emails from City Council members for nearly three weeks after the business owner who sent them to Ruffing specifically requested that the emails about HH be given to the City Council.
If you want a reason to believe HH can successfully comply with the Planning Commission's Special Conditions, that belief will pretty much rely on the fact that HH has recently employed a new house manager who will be on scene at least five days a week. This person, Lara Anderson, does appear to be a confident and competent employee. How much she can turn around the atmosphere in and around Hospitality House will prove to be the big question. The facility, along with its sister entity, Hospitality Center, at the Old Coast Hotel location, would be better situated outside of the central business district. That doesn't seem to be a change in the offing of the foreseeable future, so the City of Fort Bragg, through its Planning Commission, perhaps has done the best it can for the time being: saddle Hospitality House with a relatively simple collection of conditions to abide by. Let's see whether the City of Fort Bragg has given HH enough rope to corral their problems or just enough to proverbially hang the organization.