Well in the Desert president: 'There is nothing funny about our budget'
Questions over a homeless services center's finances linger. Its 'rough customer' president has a simple explanation
Concerns about a facility providing services for those experiencing homelessness, voiced last week by an elected city official, may simply be a matter of poor communication.
As first reported in The Post’s Daily Briefing last week, Palm Springs Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Middleton balked at entering into a new contract with Well in the Desert due to questions about the difference in budgets between that organization and Martha’s Village. Both are slated to partner on a new homeless services facility at the city’s former boxing club at 225 S. El Cielo Rd.
Middleton’s concerns were aired during a review of terms for the partnership. There was no vote on the new contract scheduled. Rather, staff members were instructed to take City Council input into consideration while crafting a final ordinance to be voted on at a future meeting.
“I’m incredibly struggling to understand how Martha’s can provide all their services for $221,000 and Well in the Desert, for a drop-in center, has a $560,000 budget and a line item in their budget of $172,000 for ‘client assistance,’” Middleton said. “I don’t know what that is, and I don’t know how that relates to a drop-in center.
“… I have very serious concerns about our relationship with The Well.”
But Arlene Rosenthal, president of Well in the Desert, said a mistake on her part is to blame for Middleton’s concerns. City staff asked both organizations to submit a budget for their operations at the new facility. Rosenthal said she instead submitted her organization’s entire operating budget.
“We are well-documented,” she said via email Saturday. “We are very transparent. There is nothing funny about our budget.”
Rosenthal is no stranger to criticism. But during the two decades The Well has provided services in the city, she has struggled to eloquently address residents who turn to social media and public meetings to criticize her and her organization. Her gruff demeanor is often on display in one-on-one interactions and lengthy posts on social media, where she lobs accusations back at those who raise questions.
“I’m a rough customer,” she said Friday, adding that her combative and direct approach is necessary when advocating for her organization and clients. The Well is one of few options in Palm Springs assisting the most difficult homeless clients — those facing addictions and mental health issues who often turn down support.
In a city driven by tourism, trying hard to portray itself as a sun-drenched paradise, most residents and business owners here wish The Well’s services simply weren’t needed and its clients didn’t exist. But the reality is Palm Springs, like many cities in America, is mired in crisis, struggling to find solutions to conditions that lead to homelessness.
“Is it true that we help drug addicts, alcoholics and people with mental disorders? Absolutely, and we are not ashamed of it,” Rosenthal said. “These are human beings worthy of dignity, care, and love.”
Few in the city disagree with that sentiment. But many residents who live in homes near The Well, or see some of her clients on city streets, say there’s only so many heart wrenching stories you can empathize with when someone’s defecating on your lawn while you’re trying to enjoy a cup of coffee.
“I think it’s abundantly evident that the location is not working and that we have to find a different location,” Middleton said in March, before voting in favor of working to relocate The Well and allocating city funds to help. “The location has to change. It’s not working with the interactions with the neighbors and the interactions with downtown.”
Tax forms unclear
Community members who have rallied behind Rosenthal and The Well have done so enthusiastically. The most recent documents on file with the Internal Revenue Service, filed between 2016 and 2019, show consistent support, including slowly increasing contributions and grants totaling $2.1 million.
What those documents don’t show, however, contributes to accusations found on social media. Unlike documents filed by Martha’s Village, linked to on its public website, exact details showing how The Well spends its money, and what Rosenthal draws as a salary, are missing. Instructions on the Form 990 state nonprofit organizations must list the salary of all current officers, directors and employees, “regardless of the amount of compensation.”
That may be an oversight as well, and the difference between more mature accounting practices at Martha’s Village — which has a multimillion-dollar annual budget and expenditures — and Well in the Desert, which is just Rosenthal and a volunteer staff, taking in and spending roughly $600,000 annually.
Rosenthal said accounting documents showing she draws a $1,500-a-month salary are in the city’s hands, and that she is happy to discuss any financial information about The Well with anyone who reaches out. She did not provide those documents to The Post.
“They were sent so much paperwork about our organization — enough to choke a horse,” she said of city officials and staff. That paperwork included "our budget, along with complete information about us.
“Our accountant left no stone unturned. … The Council gets a report about how many people receive our services monthly and have for years.”