"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does”

- Margaret Mead

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History-Then and Now

History of The Esplanade House  By Lynne Bussey

The year was 1990, and while most big real estate developers were looking to make their next million, Greg Webb of Webb Homes was figuring out how he could give it back to his community. When his Catholic church began to explore ways to establish a homeless shelter for families with children, it got his attention. 

Likewise, at a time when most physicians were dealing with the advent of HMO’s and worried about their practice finances, Dr. Gary Incaudo was more interested in what he heard through his Lutheran Church: a local church effort was underway to create a family homeless shelter. He wanted to help.

These two men met at a meeting that would mark the beginning of an extraordinary partnership that would span over 20 years, and challenge them to use every resource they had to make their dream a reality. After 18 months of frustration, roadblocks, and lack of additional support, the church-sponsored effort gave up and disbanded. They felt the project was badly needed, but simply “out of reach”.

That’s when Greg Webb and Dr. Gary Incaudo decided to see what they could do on their own. Using his real estate contacts, Webb found a local motel for sale that could be renovated. He lobbied the City of Chico to invest redevelopment funds, and corroborated with the Community Action Agency (CAA) of Butte County to create a partnership for funding and management. When Webb succeeded in getting the property purchased, he tapped his fellow contractors to help with the remodel and renovation. In the span of six months, the “Esplanade House” family homeless shelter was ready for occupancy.

While Webb was busy with the bricks and mortar, Dr. Gary Incaudo had begun program development with Community Action Agency of Butte County (CAA). Concerned with the health and well-being of the children, Dr. Incaudo used his contacts to help him with volunteer medical services, and familiarized himself with various social service agencies that could be utilized. Then he tapped into Chico State University grad student programs, lobbied the church community for serious help, and spoke to every service club in town. 

In 1991, the shelter opened to families with children. At this point Incaudo and Webb could have done what a lot of people would expect: pat themselves on the back, hang their Chamber of Commerce “Volunteer of the Year” awards on the wall, and feel good about themselves. But they didn’t. In fact, they didn’t feel good at all, because when their idealism about the project came up against reality, it was sad and sobering.

The shelter was a far cry from what they had envisioned. The government money that CAA received to run the program was minimal at best, with a budget that only provided for utilities and a site supervisor. Incaudo and Webb realized the shelter was not much more than a band-aid for these families, who would be homeless again in no time. Worse, it was dangerous for the children. Their “playground,” the parking lot, was quickly becoming a loitering area for drug and alcohol addicted residents. These were highly dysfunctional, third generation welfare families with a myriad of problems. The list was endless: lack of education, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, lack of parenting skills, legal problems, abuse survivor syndromes, poor health and nutrition. It was not a matter of “pull yourself up by your boot straps” or “just get a job.” These people represented an entire sub-culture caught up in a lifestyle that their children were doomed to repeat. This was what struck Incaudo and Webb the hardest: their outdated notions of “homeless” were so simple compared to what stared back at them. These people needed a whole life makeover if there was any hope to break the cycle. It was overwhelming, but instead of throwing up their hands, they reached out to these families and found out what they really needed. And what they needed was no small undertaking.

Thus began a journey for both men who realized the true scope of what had to be done. First, they needed a safe, healthy environment for the kids: a daycare center that could care for infants through school age. Then, a strict on-site program developed for those families who truly wanted to change their life. It would demand good staff, counselors, drug testing, evening curfews, 24 hour security, mandatory life-skills classes, work training, and …..a lot of money.

With the exception of their accountants and IRS, no one really knows how much Incaudo and Webb have personally put into the project since 1991,  and they prefer it that way. But they are no doubt the two largest contributors to the non-profit they created to sustain the program model at the shelter, the Esplanade House Children's Fund. With only a small board of directors, the fund supplements that which the government can’t provide by fundraising in the community. In the past, it has been as much as 45% of the shelter’s budget. The Esplanade House program’s success rate exceeds the national average with “graduates” either fully employed or in school after just 7-12 months in the program.

By 1999, the Esplanade House had a waiting list of 3 families for every one they could take. Incaudo and Webb lead a huge board effort to build a larger shelter in the form of apartments, rather than the run-down 12 room motel it had occupied for 13 years.

The 4 million dollar project included 36 apartments for the housing program, a daycare center, and 24 sorely needed “graduate housing” apartments that would be subsidized for graduate families. And though the vast majority of the community supported the new project, the Esplanade House got a nasty NIMBY fight for an entire summer through Planning Commission meetings and City Council appeals, complete with bodily threats and intimidation tactics. Ironically, Incaudo and Webb found themselves up against the same “conservative” local politicians they had always supported. A narrow 4-3 vote in 2001 gave them the green light to expand the project, and today the “Esplanade House” is more like an “Esplanade Campus” with the apartments and buildings that make up a community of struggling families. It is a quiet community by any comparable standards, with curfews and rules that are there to help families change their lives for the better. Some don’t make it, but those that do have changed the way our community sees the homeless problem… after all, an Esplanade House graduate may check you in for a mammogram, take your call for a want ad at the local paper, be a social worker, or carpenter. Wherever they are, they have our donors, staff, and volunteers to thank for believing in them and supporting their efforts to make a better life for them and their children.