Sylvia Velez and her North Sacramento neighbors just wanted to catch a mail thief.
They never imagined that the alleged thief, a woman they say has been snatching packages and envelopes from doorsteps and mailboxes, would wind up homeless as a result of their inquiries.
But that is what happened to Keesa Espley, who had been staying in a transitional living apartment for mentally ill people, after neighbors reported her alleged thievery to her landlord and police.
Cast out from the Palmer Apartments in the Hagginwood neighborhood of North Sacramento early last week, Espley took up residence on the porch of a vacant house just steps from her old building. On Thursday morning, a Bee reporter found her there, barefoot and surrounded by opened packages and a new blender, food processor and other items, as she sorted through envelopes.
“Yes, she did a terrible thing taking the mail,” said Velez, an attorney who lives and works near the apartment building. “But now she’s sleeping on a piece of cardboard in the dirt. That’s not right.”
Espley, whose thoughts appeared scattered, denied to a Bee reporter that she stole anything and declined to comment further. “I’m working right now,” she said. “Please leave.”
But interviews with authorities and a series of emails between Velez and staff members at TLCS, a nonprofit group that runs the transitional living program at Palmer Apartments, provide insight into her apparently chaotic life and current situation.
The case also raises questions about a facility’s responsibility to its clients, and the difficulties of managing people who may be mentally ill and engage in criminal behavior.
TLCS, which stands for Transforming Lives, Cultivating Success, states on its website that one of its goals is “preventing homelessness.”
Espley, 42, has a criminal history in the Sacramento area dating back to at least 2003. She has been charged with vandalism, burglary and theft, among other things, according to online records. Postal inspectors confirmed that the agency has investigated her in the past. Stealing mail is a felony punishable by up to five years in federal prison.
It is unclear when Espley moved into the Palmer Apartments, which TLCS describes as an interim housing program for people who “are experiencing homelessness and have a psychiatric disability.” The complex, neatly painted and tidily landscaped, “provides a safe, hospitable alternative to shelters and allows individuals to get off the streets,” according to the agency’s website. Residents receive various services including mental health care, it says.
TLCS is partially funded by Sacramento County. County spokeswoman Samantha Mott said TLCS gets nearly $7 million from the county, including more than $700,000 for the Palmer Apartments transitional living program.
TLCS executive director Erin Johansen said her agency is unable to comment on specific clients and incidents because of strict privacy laws. She said the agency’s goal is “for every resident to leave Palmer with a permanent housing plan,” and that 80 percent of people who move into the facility do so.
However, if a resident fails to comply with house rules or the person’s behavior “becomes intolerable or dangerous to the rest of the community” or engages in criminal behavior, they may be asked to leave, Johansen said. She said staff members work hard to find beds for such residents in shelters or other facilities through homeless navigators and other nonprofits. “Sometimes the individual rejects all attempts to assist and returns to the streets,” she said.
Sacramento police spokesman Sgt. Vance Chandler said police responded to neighborhood complaints about Espley on Jan. 31. They briefly detained her and cited her for theft, he said. He said the investigation is ongoing.
Postal Inspector Jeff Fitch said his agency is working with the Police Department to investigate the potential crime, and also to help Espley.
“Our goal here is helping to secure the mail,” Fitch said. But if she is homeless and mentally ill, “all of these things are germane to the case. We’re investigating the matter and working with the Sacramento Police Department to try to work out a solution.”
Velez and others said they believe Espley has been stealing mail in the area for at least a couple of weeks. Velez said she recently saw her in possession of a piece of mail addressed to one of her neighbors, along with what appeared to be a sapphire ring in a plastic pouch. Another neighbor said she saw Espley taking envelopes from a mailbox.
Neighbors called police, TLCS and postal inspectors about their suspicions of Espley early last week. Tracy Perdue, a TLCS manager at Palmer Apartments, responded via email to Velez on Jan. 29 that “we are handling the situation” and “are proceeding within the confines of the law.”
Perdue pointed out in her messages that clients of the program are protected by strict laws regarding privacy, and did not name Espley or go into detail about her background. On Feb. 3, another TLCS manager messaged Velez to tell her that the mail thief “is no longer a resident in our facility” and that authorities were on the case.
Since then, Espley has been sleeping outside of the vacant house, digging in dumpsters and wandering the area, neighbors told The Bee.
Velez said she is disheartened by the string of events. She has a relative who suffers from mental illness, she said, and “I would hate to think that if he did something wrong, he would just get dumped in the street.”
But solutions for cases like Espley’s are elusive at a time when Sacramento’s homeless population is exploding and affordable housing and mental health programs are lacking for people who are poor, advocates said.
“TLCS may have been a program of last resort for this woman,” said Bob Erlenbusch of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. “Tragically, we just don’t have enough resources.”
Erlenbusch said he was unfamiliar with the circumstances surrounding Espley’s departure from Palmer Apartments. “But I’m a firm believer that you do what it takes, for as long as it takes,” to help people retain housing, he said. “Maybe you have to move this woman to another building,” if a spot is available. “Maybe you have to move her 10 times until it sticks.”
But housing for poor people is sorely lacking in Sacramento County, he said, as evidenced by the fact that tens of thousands of people recently applied for 7,000 slots on a waiting list for affordable housing. Mental health care for the poor and homeless also is less than abundant, he pointed out.
Espley was last seen by her North Sacramento neighbors on Thursday afternoon, walking down Del Paso Boulevard and loudly talking to herself.