The Santa Barbara City Council approved spending $865,000 in Redevelopment Agency funds to buy a three-bedroom home just off the 300 block of West Figueroa Street to be used as a detox center for people recovering from drugs and alcohol. Movers and shakers in the South Coast’s rehab world packed the council chambers urging approval, but the proposal drew mixed reactions from residents living near the proposed site. Some enthusiastically supported the plan, citing the crying need for better detox facilities; others expressed serious misgivings about their new neighbors; some felt torn between the competing objectives.
Detox facilities on the South Coast have long been in short supply. For the past six years, New Beginnings has operated a 12-bed facility at the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter on Cacique Street, but it was never a good fit. For people trying to get away from drugs and alcohol, Casa Esperanza offered limited refuge from temptation. As some recovered addicts testified, it was all too easy to secure drugs or alcohol while at the Casa. The logistics of the Casa were such that women with addiction problems could not be accommodated at the Casa’s New Beginnings operation. They were sent to Santa Maria facilities. By relocating New Beginnings, Casa administrators contend they would be able to better control who came and went at the shelter, a crucial step in responding to complaints from Casa’s neighbors about unruly and disruptive guests.
From the start, the million-dollar question has been where. After an 18-month search, City Hall administrators — along with the Housing Authority — settled upon the two-story property at 1020 Placido Avenue. With a downtown location away from the homeless shelter, the new property might prove to be more attractive to a broader socio-economic spectrum of people with drug and alcohol problems than New Beginnings did at the homeless shelter. In addition, the floor plan of the house is such that women can be housed — and treated there — in quarters segregated from the men. Under the plan adopted by the council, the property will be owned by the City Housing Authority, but managed by the Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (CADA) — with on-site managers — seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
Badly stung by neighborhood backlash over its recent efforts to acquire a one-time motel and convert it into transitional housing for the mentally ill, the Housing Authority held two meetings in the past month and invited anyone living within 300 feet of the site to speak their piece. Housing Authority executives touted their long track record managing all kinds of properties with all kind of populations; they touted CADA’s 60-year history in the community. They promised to be stellar neighbors.
For a young couple with a nine-month-old daughter, such assurances were not enough. It was a great project filling a pressing social need, they testified, but with it being less than six feet from their bedroom window, very much in the wrong location. They’d be sharing a 45-foot-long stretch of fence with 12 new people every two weeks. Other neighborhood residents — some of whom identified themselves as recovering addicts — expressed fears that the new residents could be disruptive, if not dangerous. Already, they noted, they had to deal with the RV dwellers who camped every night in the public parking lot by Carrillo and Castillo streets, not to mention the halfway house for troubled teens at the corner of Bath and Figueroa streets. One recent arrival to the neighborhood expressed doubt that the expenditure of RDA dollars was even legal. Redevelopment Agencies are authorized to expend public funds to fight blight, the man pointed out. Funding a detox center is not alleviating blight. City Attorney Steve Wiley acknowledged the detox facility does not fit into traditional redevelopment revitalization efforts — like the Paseo Nuevo mall or new State Street sidewalks — but said many people living on the streets and panhandling have addiction problems. By providing treatment, he said, City Hall would be alleviating the pressures creating “blight” as it’s increasingly defined in the 21st century.
The only councilmember to vote against the funding was Michael Self, who responded to Wiley’s recitation with, “That’s not a stretch?” But some neighbors welcomed the new facility with open arms. Councilmember Dale Francisco and Mayor Helene Schneider both expressed hope that by relocating the detox facility, City Hall could make it easier for Casa Esperanza managers to respond to neighborhood concerns. Councilmember Bendy White suggested that a number of conditions could be imposed on the new facility to minimize impact on neighbors — like glazed windows and new fences. Schneider expressed optimism the new facility would be a good neighbor. “With 24/7 staff oversight, the people there won’t be so micro-managed that they won’t be out there loitering and creating problems,” she said. “It will be safer overall.”