City Hall’s beleaguered “Real Change, Not Spare Change” campaign was quietly put to rest last week by the Santa Barbara City Council after a two-year experiment that rarely showed much sign of life. The campaign had been designed with all the best of intentions. It would give residents and visitors alike an alternate vehicle for low-budget philanthropy while actively discouraging donations to panhandlers. On paper, it looked great. Santa Barbara’s Redevelopment Agency had committed to spending up to $75,000 — via the Downtown Organization — to get the word out and educate the public. Business owners and shopkeepers, upset by the number of panhandlers, would post well-marked donation boxes. People moved to help the unfortunate could do so by giving to the Casa Esperanza Homeless Shelter — and not street people — and the shelter management would spend the money to hire outreach workers trained to connect the homeless with social services.
In practice, the program never had much support from the business community. As of this June, only eight businesses were posting donation boxes in their premises. During the entire lifespan of Real Change, only 25 businesses signed up. What shop owners wanted instead was a tough new ordinance that would target aggressive panhandlers. But to get one, they had to accept an alternative giving program. That was the political quid pro quo required by the previous City Council. Otherwise, liberal ministers and homeless-rights advocates would have pitched a fit. In the end, the business community got a new panhandling ordinance and the liberals got “Real Change.” Both proved busts.
Since its inception, the “Real Change” program went through $58,500 of the $75,000 that City Hall budgeted for outreach and education. It generated $7,000 in donations for outreach workers.
To date, maybe three citations have been issued under the new aggressive panhandling measure. Legally, there’s a big difference between aggressively panhandling and sitting on a park bench holding a sign that asks for money. The City Attorney remains convinced there’s no constitutionally sound way to prohibit such behavior. Since its inception, the “Real Change” program went through $58,500 of the $75,000 that City Hall budgeted for outreach and education. It generated $7,000 in donations for outreach workers. Maybe it could have been more successful had donation devices been put out on State Street. Some toyed with placing specially retrofitted parking meters on the street for just that purpose. But that idea found little favor with members of the Historic Landmarks Commission. In the end, it might not have mattered.
In part because of budget constraints, Casa Esperanza no longer can afford to hire any outreach workers at all. In the midst of all this, however, some initiatives still hold out hope. In exchange for not opposing the aggressive panhandling ordinance, homeless advocates also insisted that City Hall increase the number of detox beds available to the homeless. Casa Esperanza had — and for the time being still has — six beds, but that’s a challenging environment in which to get clean and sober. The city’s Redevelopment Agency provided the funds for the Housing Authority to purchase a small home on Placido Street — by Figueroa and Castillo — which is now being remodeled so that the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse can run it. In the meantime, Casa Esperanza is shipping women in search of detox services to the Good Samaritan shelter in Lompoc. As a practical matter, this has freed up three additional beds at the Casa. Given the keening dearth of affordable detox facilities, these additions are huge.
These were among the more tangible highlights — or lowlights — during the City Council’s discussion on its approach toward homelessness last week. With the new council majority more worried about “enabling” the homeless than helping them, a subcommittee had taken a sharp look at Casa Esperanza’s free lunch program designed to draw “service resistant” homeless into the orbit of social services. Many of the shelter’s neighbors complained the food program drew a large cast of drunks, drug addicts, and drifters into the Milpas corridor. Out of this sprang the Milpas Community Association (MCA) — led by Sharon Byrne — which lobbied City Hall for a much tougher form of love.
But even those councilmembers most skeptical about the lunch program concluded no alternative sites made sense. To operate a food truck, as was suggested, would cost $250,000 a year. Rather than hiring six new cops — as the Milpas Community Association demanded — the council voted to dip into its Redevelopment Agency funds to hire an additional restorative policing officer (there are now two) to help get the homeless off the street and into the proper treatment program. In addition, the council approved hiring three community outreach workers to make sure that those in need got connected with the available services. And finally, the council agreed to hire six new social hosts to walk State Street, Milpas Street, and the Waterfront to help keep a lid on transient-related crime.
Since neither the hosts nor the outreach workers have been hired, it’s too soon to gauge their success. Byrne, now running for council, and the Milpas Community Association have decried these measures as too little too late. Until Byrne decided to run for office, she enjoyed collegial relations with the council’s new conservative majority. But when MCA president Alan Bleeker delivered an unhappy earful to the council last Tuesday, he got no traction with his former allies. That stood in stark contrast to the open arms with which that same majority had received MCA’s messages in recent months.
Finally, the council voted to fuse many of the major enterprises relating to homelessness into one superagency. Driving this consolidation was a concern to reduce duplication of effort and increase efficiency. What form this new entity takes remains to be seen. But given that 67 percent of all homeless live within the City of Santa Barbara and that most of the funding for services is provided by the County of Santa Barbara, it’s a good bet these two governmental entities will be directing the new show.