With this summer’s tourist season fast approaching, business leaders of downtown Santa Barbara held a special retreat last week to discuss what they termed the growing problem vagrants and panhandlers, and to hammer out exactly what they want City Hall to do about it. The retreat - dubbed “Taking Back Downtown” - was hosted by the Downtown Organization because its board has grown concerned that the growing number of street people is making downtown less welcoming to visitors. Although police statistics do not indicate that aggressive panhandling, for example, has become more prevalent, some Downtown Organization boardmembers are convinced more needs to be done about it.
While some Downtown Organization members have demanded a greater police presence on State Street during daylight hours, it’s questionable how much support there is for that among members of the City Council. Posting additional cops downtown comes with a high price tag and the city is already grappling with a tight budget. In addition, Milpas Street merchants and residents have been clamoring for a stronger police presence as well in response to some of drinking and drug use associated with the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter on Cacique Street. In addition, there’s a push to designate the neighborhood near the shelter as a “recovery zone,” and to pass new restrictions on the sale of certain alcoholic drinks.
In addition, councilmembers Das Williams and Roger Horton have advocated an anti-panhandling campaign similar to the one adopted by the City of Ventura. Known as “Compassion Not Cash,” Ventura city officials are enlisting the business community there in a campaign to provide panhandlers coupons rather than cash. These coupons could be redeemed for something useful and nutritious, such as snacks, sun-screen, soap, energy drinks, rather than cash. Thus far, that idea has gained only limited traction with Santa Barbara business leaders.