As part of a column in September I wrote the following: “For years the Board and employees of [Mendocino Coast] Hospitality Center have demonstrated an inability to simply manage the delivery of food dispersed at their Fort Bragg flagship, Hospitality House. Feeding the poor and homeless is a worthy endeavor, but Hospitality lets too many of its clients leave the grounds with the food. Much too much of that food ends up dumped, trashed, deposited on the near and not so near neighbors of Hospitality House. It's been going on for years. It's still happening three-quarters of the way through 2016. If the high school or middle school or any Fort Bragg school had a fraction of these kinds of food trashing the city, from teachers to school administrators to police to parents right up through and including the city government would be on the case in no time, putting a stop to it. If students dumping school food popped up again as a problem several years on, it would be met with a similar concerted effort. However, a do-gooder non-profit is allowed to let an unhealthy portion of its clientele trash businesses and residences for years and years with the mildest of admonishments at best.”
At the October 11, 2016 Fort Bragg City Council meeting, outgoing council member Scott Deitz acknowledged receiving an email from a downtown business owner concerning troubling behavior by mentally unstable transients near the Franklin and Redwood Street intersection. The behaviors included loud foul language, pot smoking, and spitting.
Deitz went on to express his support for the mental health and homeless services offered at the Hospitality Center (at 101 N. Franklin St., site of the Old Coast Hotel), while noting that there are many locals with mental health and homelessness issues. The councilman suggested ways citizens could help out, including notifying the police department when similar problems occur. Deitz encouraged voters to support Measure AG. In addition Deitz said that he had recently met with the Director of the Hospitality Center and the President of its Board of Directors. “They do not believe that any of their clients were involved in the incident (noted earlier)... They wanted the community to know that they've heard the complaints regarding trash and have stopped allowing food to be taken off site from their Hospitality House facility.”
Unfortunately, Councilman Deitz was utterly misled. Food and trash coming from the Hospitality House was and is being dumped on the grounds of Hospitality House's neighbors immediately prior to the October 11th statement and it has been going on throughout the rest of October and well into November.
Here's a complaint sent to the Fort Bragg Police Department (FBPD) in late October by a central business district property owner: “We have had numerous problems in the last year with people loitering, garbage, public intoxication, animal cruelty and fighting from the hours of 4pm-6pm while people are signing in and waiting for food to be served. It appears that anybody waiting for food to be served, is served only in the back of the alley and is requested to loiter in the public alley without any monitoring from staff at Hospitality House. In the past few days I have witnessed (2) men smoking weed out of a can nightly and people showing up intoxicated and still being served food. One man is S[name withheld] and the other I do not know.
Yesterday, I was verbally assaulted by an intoxicated woman as I was in my car trying to drive through the alley to run an errand. I fear for the safety of any person walking or driving down the alley between the hours of 4-6--while people are signing in and loitering. I am requesting extra patrol. I am sending pictures of the woman who verbally assaulted me and pictures of areas where the people waiting for food, are stashing their booze and continuing to drink while they wait to be served without being monitored by the Hospitality House. I could not drive back down the alley or have use of the alley last night.”
And another email sent to the FBPD in the same time period, “Arriving at my store today I found garbage on my property from the food served at Hospitality House. In the past year we have had numerous problems between the hours of four to six while Hospitality House serves food to intoxicated people without any monitoring. I would like to inform the Police Department that there have also been people waiting by our propane gas tank before and after food is served. They loiter after I leave work, to eat their HH food, smoke and drink. They are smoking weed and cigarettes... right next to my propane tank, actually within inches.”
A further complaint addressed to FBPD, and also copied to the Hospitality Center, from the first week of November, “Yesterday at 4:15 I noticed two men loitering as they were waiting for food being served by the Hospitality House... The Hospitality House has their front entrance located at 237 N. Mc Pherson Street but serves food nightly, without monitoring from staff, in the [back] alley shared with businesses and citizens. There were two men standing and sitting [loitering] behind the garbage can [in the alley] from 4:15 and were still there when I left work at 5:30. I am sending a photo along with another I took this morning at 7:30 am of garbage on Redwood Ave.--in front of the pizza place. The garbage appears to be from food being served at Hospitality House. I have had the same cup [cites the design] shoved through my mail slot in the past few months, I am sending a picture of that as well. I am requesting extra patrol between the hours of 4:00pm and 6:00pm while food is being served.”
There are more examples of complaints, but the point was made with me. I started walking through the same alleyway myself whenever I was in Fort Bragg. In the last few weeks I have witnessed some of the same things, including five-six people walking out of the Hospitality House with food in hand and absolutely no one present to deter them. I've also seen the loitering alluded to in the complaints above, especially in the 4-6pm time period.
I'm sure Councilman Deitz's comments were well-intended, but whoever told him food, that too often ends up as trash, was not leaving Hospitality House did not tell the councilman the truth. Furthermore, from my perspective, I believe he was deliberately misled. There's nothing better than a public statement from an elected official at an official gathering, a Fort Bragg City Council meeting, to make your organization look like it is listening to the public and trying to do the right thing.
After observing much the same thing as listed in the complaints above, last Thursday I sent an email to Lynelle Johnson, one of the members of the Board of Directors of Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center (MCHC), the entity that governs Hospitality House. Lynelle's husband, Gary Johnson, is the President of MCHC. My email asked, “Can you give me any information on steps taken recently by HH, or Board of Directors, to curb the number of instances of food leaving the Hospitality House property?”
She responded late that evening, “It has been a long standing policy that food is not to leave HH premises.
“We met with staff again this last week to discuss some suggested changes. We just ordered 350 food trays that will be used during the dinner program rather than paper plates. That hopefully will eliminate much of the potential littering problem.
“Staff will remain vigilant in talking to and monitoring our outside guests. We are also working on new signage and brochures to 'educate' our outside guests on all our policies. Our staff will continue to 'police' the neighborhood in an effort to make sure it is clean.
“Hope all these efforts result in positive results. Thanks for checking...Lynelle
“PS. Gary and I walked the alleyway and monitored the facility from 4:00-6:00 this past week just to observe. We all know how critical it is to be 'good neighbors'.”
The next afternoon, at 4:15, this writer arrived at the south end of said alleyway. There was no sign of either Johnson. About 4:50 p.m. I walked around to the north end. No Johnsons, or anyone else in a position of authority from either Hospitality Center or Hospitality House. Precisely at 5pm a woman with a day pack on, obviously “out of it” on booze or some other drug (or combo), staggered down the alley, veering from side to side, stumbling backward at times. At one point she appeared to give the wire fence to the west a karate chop before losing her balance and dropping to her knees directly behind the rear entrance/exit of Hospitality House.
I remained within viewing distance of the alley at the rear of Hospitality House until approximately 5:30 when it became too dark to see well. I saw no sign of the Johnsons or any other Hospitality House staff.
The concept of trays rather than paper plates may be an improvement, but what's to stop those trays from walking out the back door and down the alley? Writing that “staff will remain vigilant in talking to and monitoring our outside guests” appears to be a sad, hollow promise from the point of view of someone who has been watching that back alleyway off and on for a couple of weeks. I'm far more inclined to believe and side with the local residents and business owners. These are some of their words,
“I wish HH could understand what this program is like to live and work next to. There are other issues than just cleaning up.
“HH has chosen to have their services in a mixed-use part of town. People live and work in this area and inviting people for a free service can result in large numbers and requires a commitment to the citizens sharing the alley, that the area can be used by all people, at all times.
“Folks often suffer from mental illnesses and most that are showing up for food are not currently in programs, often self-medicated. Self-medicating while waiting for food will cause an enormous amount of issues.
“If the alley is not monitored the entire time this will never stop. This is the absolute wrong place for food services. By asking people to wait in the alley they do not have a visual from inside the house and they really are serving food from a house that was not designed for this volume.
“HH has been the worst neighbor I have ever had in my life. I have never had a neighbor that has had constant foot traffic, friends loitering with almost every person showing up on foot intoxicated, leaving garbage daily, including bodily fluids and having their guests use my property at all hours of the night for a bathroom.”