After nearly four hours of emotion-drenched testimony, the Santa Barbara City Council didn’t cut the proverbial baby in half; it didn’t quite slice off a hand. It only felt that way. On the chopping block was a proposal for City Hall to give the Housing Authority $1.5 million to buy an old eight-room motel at 2904 State Street (near Alamar Street) and convert it into permanent supportive housing for mentally ill people getting off the streets and reclaiming their lives.
Based largely on an essential misunderstanding of what the proposed project actually was, many members of the Peabody Charter School community came out of the woodwork in the past week — blitzing councilmembers with angry and alarmed emails — over the prospect of a homeless shelter for the mentally ill opening up so close (842 feet) from the 750-student elementary school.
By the meeting’s end, much of the confusion, but not all of the concern, had been cleared up. The council voted unanimously to approve allocating the money — which will come from funds that can be spent only for affordable housing — to the Housing Authority. But in the meantime, the Housing Authority needs to meet with the upset Peabody parents to allay their concerns over who will be staying in the units and under what guidance. The Housing Authority intends to lease the property to the WillBridge House, a faith-based nonprofit that in the past six years has amassed a stellar reputation for helping the most challenging and “service-resistant” street people get back on their feet.
Part of the uproar stemmed from the failure of the Housing Authority to notify the Peabody community beforehand what the plans were. By law, no such notice was required. Consequently, no one at Peabody learned of the deal until last Thursday and Friday, from news reports of the council’s Tuesday deliberations on the matter. Many complained they felt the council was trying to ram the project down their throats. Making matters worse, sketchy media reports conjured inaccurate images of a miniature Casa Esperanza, the Milpas Street homeless shelter now the subject of considerable controversy.
“I don’t want Milpas’s problems on outer State Street,” one resident stated. Another recounted how he’d been accosted by an aggressive panhandler while walking with his daughter by Carl’s Jr. He noted that he would be shopping henceforth in Ventura. Several said it was “unconscionable” that the council would consider locating such a facility so close to an elementary school. A sixth-grade Peabody student recounted that many of his fellow students were “scared” at the prospect of having homeless people so close to their school, though most said they thought the homeless should be helped. Sven Klein urged the council to heed the sixth grader’s words, adding, “How dare we allocate that [money] when we’re broke?” His wife, Jennifer Klein, recalled how a deranged homeless woman had grabbed at her daughter, then an infant, at the Cabrillo ball field in 2003 and had to be physically restrained. The police had told her that the woman hadn’t taken her medications, she said. “It only takes one incident and only one,” she warned. Peabody principal Kate Ford took exception to the lack of notice by the Housing Authority and explained how the school’s Winter Sing, last December, had been disrupted by a homeless man wandering on the open campus.
Other Peabody parents saw it differently. Joe Andrulitis, a prominent architect in town who lives within half-a-mile of the motel, got choked up while speaking in favor of the project. One parent, who exclaimed what a “perfect bubble” the school has provided her child, cited her experience as a property manager for a similar project involving the mentally ill as why she supported the project. One of the founding members of the Peabody charter school also spoke in support.
It was Lynnelle Williams, cofounder and director of WillBridge House, who most assuaged the concerns of the Peabody parents. What she had in mind was not a shelter at all. She envisioned the motel as a place where she could graduate residents of the two transitional housing shelters WillBridge now runs, one at 18 East Cota Street and the other on East Montecito Street. Although these homes are located 640 and 350 feet, respectively, from Notre Dame School and Franklin School, there never have been any complaints, she said. Williams added that anyone moving into the State Street home would need three recommendations to be considered, plus a background check and a verified income stream that would enable them to pay discounted rent. They would have to work or go to school. They would need a minimum of 18 months living off the streets, be “medication compliant,” and stay clean and sober. Random drug and alcohol tests would be administered. Williams acknowledged that one WillBridge resident had started a fire in her room two weeks ago. She has since been arrested. Williams said that woman would never have qualified for consideration at the State Street digs.
A clearly sympathetic Councilmember Grant House asked Williams how her prospective clients at 2904 State Street would differ in appearance from people living nearby. “They dress and look just like you and me,” she replied. “They go to Ralph’s just like you and me. There’s no difference at all.”
The Housing Authority has been charged with hashing out an arrangement acceptable to the neighbors, the terms of which will be reported back to the council within 90 days. At that point, the council will determine the fate of the WillBridge House project. Should it be rejected, the Housing Authority would still own the property but would be forced to find other uses for it.
That the issue has proven so contentious reflects the changing political winds. Not only has the council majority shifted notably to the right, but public impatience with the homeless has grown, as well. Normally, allocations of cash to the Housing Authority are approved with little comment and no controversy. But last week, the council approved the project by a 5-2 vote, but only after considerable debate whether services, like those proposed by Willbridge House, create a magnet drawing homeless people to Santa Barbara. After hearing complaints from the Peabody community in response to that vote, Councilmember Randy Rowse brought the matter back for a second look. Upon closer examination, Rowse said the proposal appeared even more promising, but stressed it was important the neighborhood did not feel “dragged along for the ride.”