What started out as a proactive forum to help the homeless turned into a heated debate when attendees of Wednesday night’s meeting opted to discuss ways to relocate the vagrants who roam the lower Eastside.
More than 40 business owners and community members filled the Franklin Neighborhood Center to discuss concerns over the homeless population that is frequently caught dumping litter, panhandling, and drug dealing along Milpas Street.
“If we can get these people to a place where they can stay sober and get treated, we can help solve these problems,” said Sgt. James Pfleging of the Santa Barbara Police Department.
Casa Esperanza’s executive director, Mike Foley, agreed that some of the homeless have become a burden to community members and have taken a toll on business owners.
“I know what it’s like to be on my way to The Habit and get hit on by panhandlers,” Foley said. “I know what it’s like to have a toddler and not have many places to play.”
But Foley added that Santa Barbara is set up for the homeless to be successful.
“Whose idea was it to have 31 liquor licenses on Milpas?” Foley asked.
Through the help of community members, business owners, and the police, Foley said that change can happen for the better with getting the homeless back on track.
Resident Sharon Byrne said that the center of the homeless problem is at Cabrillo ballpark. Byrne suggested that the city keep the park’s bathroom door locked in the meantime to prevent illegal activities in the area.
“Leaving those doors open is pretty much an invitation to do drugs,” Byrne said.
Byrne also proposed that the park be turned into a dog park, and the possibility of introducing a concession stand to bring a positive flow of people through the area.
“The more vibrant, healthy, and used the park is, the less illicit behavior will occur,” Byrne said.
Others opted for neighborhood watches and more frequent patrols.
“We don’t have enough cops on the streets,” said Rick Feldman, owner of the Eyeglass Factory on Milpas. “I would love to hear someone deny that more police would not help solve this problem.”
Rose Aldana, however, who lives right behind the Trader Joe’s on Milpas, said that downsizing or relocating Casa Esperanza, Santa Barbara’s largest homeless shelter to “a place more suitable” would also relocate the homeless population.
“It’s a two-minute walk from the beach, which should be enjoyable, but it’s not,” Aldana said.
Aldana proposed the shelter be moved near the county’s Social Services building at Camino Del Remedio.
Aldana said she’s put up an even higher chain-link fence to keep the homeless from stealing from her fruit trees and trespassing through her property. She added that the property value of her home has decreased over the years.
“There’s no reason why we have to live like this,” Aldana said.
Others said that they don’t bother calling the police anymore because of sluggish response times.
Byrne, who mediated the forum, stopped the discussion to ask the crowd, “How many people don’t bother calling the police?”
Half the room raised their hands.
Bruce Reichard, owner of The Habit restaurant chain, no longer brings his family to his own restaurant when they come to visit because he’s ashamed of the surroundings.
“We try to keep an upbeat environment, but our reputation is being destroyed,” Reichard said. “It’s really hard to earn the tourist biz, but really easy to lose.”
“I’m losing employees because parents don’t want [their kids] to work there,” Reichard said.
The room filled with silence when Reichard laid out his next question: “Are we going to be a five-star destination for the homeless? Or a five-star destination for tourists?”
Pfeiling continued to encourage forum attendees to call the police any time they see the homeless breaking the law.
“The Police Department is completely ineffective without the support of the community,” he said.