Bill Schorr, Cagle Cartoons

Can We Help People Living on Our Streets?

Monday, September 23, 2013
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Who are the people living – and dying – on our streets today? Seventy-nine perished in 2009-2010 throughout the county. (The number dropped in 2011 to 30, a 25 percent decline from previous years, officials say.)

Some believe that people are living on our streets thanks to five years of economic collapse, job loss, home foreclosure, and medical bankruptcy.

This doesn’t describe our street population. As difficult as it is to believe, most — and probably all — live there by choice. It’s their preferred lifestyle. And as Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez has said, very few of these indigents are local — that is to say, Santa Barbarans. Query a few on the streets, and you will discover he is right. They come from Hawaii, Chicago, Oregon, Boston — everywhere. Santa Barbara is their most recent stop.

Probably none of these folks are homeless in the sense that they were turned out of their homes due to loss of jobs, or other calamitous chain of events, and are now trying to get a leg up and return to a normal life. Those people are at Transition House or other comparable places of recovery.

So if our street population is not comprised of such people, who are they, and how can we help them?

One group is the urban traveler, typically under 30, often with a dog, accompanied by a girl friend or boy friend. These people, who are physically able, have decided to “drop out” due to family disharmony, lack of personal direction, or other reasons.

Another group, generally much older, includes those who simply don’t want to be a part of the world around them. These are people like the man who uses the men’s room at City Hall daily, pulling his small carryall with a sleeping bag and other items. Quiet, polite, thoughtful, he importunes passersby along State Street with a cardboard sign asking for whatever they might give him. I once asked where he spent the night. He politely declined to answer. I understood. He simply wanted to be left alone.

Where does he spend the night? The clue is his portable carryall. Anyone with one of these, or a backpack with a bedroll, has a favorite, undisclosed local “camping” spot where they retreat nightly. Oak Park is a favored location. They often have a dog, which brings some security from other street people who might rob them, or worse. Living on the fringes of society means you cannot expect the police to help you. You are on your own.

A third group comprises the mentally and emotionally unstable. These include those who you occasionally see berating the world around them in loud voice for affronts real or imagined. They can be truly frightening and may warrant a 9-1-1 call. They can be aggressive and vocal, and loudly insult any and all who happen to cross their path. We don’t have a lot of these.

Yet another group are what might be called “passive dysfunctional.” You have seen them, like the middle-aged woman on State Street with her shopping cart full of all manner of items, and her glassy stare, even as she talks on her cell phone nonstop near Marshalls.

Finally, there are the inebriates, either from alcohol or drugs.

As residents of Santa Barbara, the overriding question should be, “How can we help these folks?” To date we have assiduously tried and spent millions without great success.

The one thing we haven’t tried, is to insist that for people to get aid — food, clothing, shelter — they must participate in a program of improvement, and that they are not just fed and then dumped back on the streets with no goal of change or improvement. In other words, we can help them when they will help themselves. People will die here if we don’t insist on that. Many of them already have. Our goal must be to get people off the streets, both for their sakes and for ours.

In the past we hoped that public housing would be the answer, the silver bullet. Housing may help some in the future, but it is only a partial answer, and a very expensive one at that, in a time when we don’t have the money. And one problem with free housing is that the line never gets shorter, so our street population never decreases. Remember that there is a 90,000-person pool of on-the-street indigents just 90 miles to the south waiting to take advantage of us. That’s not helpful to anyone.

Fortunately, other solutions are at hand, solutions that have proven successful elsewhere.

One is to reconnect people with their families, wherever they may be. Our new restorative policing program, which focuses on repeat offenders on the street, is already doing this. Since its inception in November 2011, the program has reunited 54 people with their families. It has also placed 226 others in detoxification, work-related programs, and housing over the same period of time. That’s a pretty good record. It is certainly an excellent start.

We must also push for medical assistance for those who are emotionally unstable. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for vets and the county mental health department can be helpful here.

Enrolling street people in safe-and-sober programs that require random testing is another proven means of success. Now Casa Esperanza, which has traditionally opened its doors to anyone, is converting to a “safe and sober” model, meaning that people staying there must test “clean.” Starting in November, clients will no longer be allowed to get loaded in the day and return there at night. The hope is that this will reduce our street population in the Milpas corridor of people who come there to “hang out” and live off of money panhandled for liquor and drugs. We shall see.

Insisting that our street population work with professionals can make a significant difference. It is far better that we link them to a path of recovery than enable them to continue street living by providing well-intentioned giveaways such as panhandled cash donations and free lunches, then turn our backs on them as they retreat to the bushes to spend another night in peril. And one thing few people realize is that many of the street people, particularly the older ones, get some sort of assistance from the federal government for disabilities or pension or Social Security payments. Money raised on the street is supplemental (and untaxed) income for them.

That means that churches and comparable well-meaning organizations should reexamine the practice of providing handouts with no questions asked. At least one church locally has dropped its free, no-strings overnight program. Transients disappeared from the area immediately.

But what can people like you and me do to help directly? First, it’s terrible to pay people to live on the streets. That’s exactly what we do when we reach in our pockets and pull out cash for the elderly man forever standing at the corner of De la Vina and Carrillo, or the assorted people posted at Trader Joe’s or the Central Library. We must stop subsidizing street people with our own dollars and cents.

And we can urge friends to understand that their good intentions can have fatal results. Just this past month, another longtime street person died here. Instead, if you are solicited by someone, say to them, “I will help, but not with money. Come to my church and turn your life around.” It won’t work every time, but it’s worth a try.

For residents who wish to visit our parks and beaches comfortably, for our business owners who don’t want patrons being challenged for handouts, for our police officers and firefighters who should spend time addressing serious incidents rather than answering distress calls for indigents, we need to try all these things.

Santa Barbara should be known as the city where people come to recover, and not the city where they come and die.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

Forgot one group. The group, that hangs by Trader Joes and Costco, with signs asking for money. I read that the woman at Costco drives a BMW. Please do a story on them.

ramoncramon (anonymous profile)
September 23, 2013 at 3:54 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Homeless people tend to go to places where there are less tyrannical laws and actions taken against homeless people and they tend to go where the weather is better.

The response to this by many selfish towns is to make being homeless as illegal as possible to drive them out. This only makes the problem worse elsewhere instead of spreading it around so cities can more fairly help or deal with them.

loonpt (anonymous profile)
September 23, 2013 at 5:11 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Let me enlighten you Mr. Hotchkiss. The homeless--or as some call them "transients" or as the cartoon calls them "bums" DO (as uncomfortable as it is for you and your allies to face) contain people that were born and raised here. The only "choice" any of these people have, whether they are mentally ill, from here, urban travelers, or any of the other labels that have been designated for them, is to stay here, but sometimes when you have lived here all your life and find yourself homeless, leaving can be difficult when you have nothing.

When I read past all the labeling, the message of your letter is no different from the message I've been hearing for decades: "If you can't afford it here, get OUT". (Another version is "move to Bakersfield". The sad reality is that if you look at the average home-owning family with chlldren, it's almost certain those kids will have to move out of the area or stay with their parents. Some of them are forced by the obscenely hyper-inflated prices of Southern California to move back in with their parents after they've started famalies of there own, but wait--there's a catch: Because of Santa Barbara/California's fixation on fees, permit costs, and other ways to make a simple thing complicated, the parents might not be able to afford paying their Protection Money to the municipal powers-that-be. (assuming they don't run afoul of local building codes and are forbidden altogether from adding extra rooms to their houses)

One by one, those of us working-class folks--as well as quite a few "DINKS" (Double Income, No Kids) couples are fleeing as well. Back in the 80's, my friend Josh Marin (son of activist Peter Marin) darkly joked about Santa Barbara being "the only place where people with PHd's wait on tables". (Kudos to Josh for that one) Josh and many of us saw the writing on the wall decades ago, and one by one we've all left.

Go ahead and keep throwing lables on all the "bums" but realize that they are simply analogous to the Miner's Canary telling you there ain't enough oxygen in the shaft to properly respirate. Many more of us, who grew up here, who don't drink or abuse drugs, who work full time, are leaving because your Paradise is simply too expensive for us. The question is, when the last one of us has been forced out either by costs, or by S.B.'s Finest pushing us out of here, who will wait on your tables?

billclausen (anonymous profile)
September 23, 2013 at 6:39 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I just noticed: After Hotchkiss's anti-booze rant another booze ad for "The Balvanie". The irony!

billclausen (anonymous profile)
September 23, 2013 at 6:51 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Santa Barbara has always had and will always have transients. Heck the De Anza expedition was made up of drifters looking to find a better climate and opportunity. They slept rough and depended on the kindness of strangers. Flash forward to the second half of the twentieth century, fr the Great Depression to the present Santa Barbara has had a large homeless population. Thirty years ago there were many more places for them to live. The area where Chase Palm Park Expansion and Fess Parker now stand used to be a virtual KOA for the dwelling challenged. They were rarely harassed because they were largely unseen. Sure they went out to get jobs or panhandle or just hang out. People then accepted them as part of the funkyness that was Santa Barbara. Were they a problem? Sure, but now the crisis seems worse because people new to the area are shocked by what they see. We try our best to manage the situation, but the transients are not leaving. Like the gang issue the homeless issue is blown out of proportion. This letter is nothing more than Hotchkiss running for re election.
He does have one good idea, do not give money to panhandlers. But I up the ante. When I am approached for money, I ask them for money. Many times they give me a handout. I am up to $17.75.

Herschel_Greenspan (anonymous profile)
September 23, 2013 at 8:49 p.m. (Suggest removal)

you know, if you had any new ideas maybe we could believe you actually care about this issue. Instead you babble about the same old tired nonsense that has been tried, tested, and abandoned. Go ahead, preach to your choir.

spacey (anonymous profile)
September 24, 2013 at 12:20 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Bill, your emotion has overtaken your reason. The author wasn't labeling homeless as he was trying to give reasons for their homelessness. Santa Barbara is not unique with it's issues on homelessness. Look at Santa Monica. Another city with pricey real estate and onerous rent control. They have a homeless population that far exceeds ours. They can't possibly house most of their homeless even if they wanted to be housed. But it's a beach town with mild weather just like Santa Barbara, so if someone is going to be homeless, it's a good place to be.

Botany (anonymous profile)
September 24, 2013 at 6:17 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I agree that he offers no real/new solutions. Are there any? I also understand that some may object to what they see as too easy "labeling," but, by and large, the categories he's listed here seem accurate to me. Can anyone who's lived here for some time, nearly 25 years now in my case, not see how the city has changed and the nature of the "homeless" who live here has changed as well. As one example, I personally have no desire to support, or even understand, the "urban travelers" who now make up a large part of those on SB's streets. As for the chronically intoxicated, the mentally ill etc, It's a real issue, one in search of a real solution. I don't have one, but I'm not sure how some of the personally-charged rants here address this either. Sorry, but I don't see how over-regulation or licensing fees apply in this case; don't think most of those on the streets are failed small business owners. SB is hardly the only place where college graduates, even those with PhDs, have waited on tables. SB is not so unique nor is such an observation. Bottom line here, in my opinion, is that to understand a problem, one must forthrightly address it and maybe even "categorize" the participants in it as part of that process. I think that's what Hotchkiss, with whom I don't particularly agree on many issues, has done here.

zappa (anonymous profile)
September 24, 2013 at 6:17 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Frank I know you are a politician and don't want to be bothered with the facts but you should take a look at some of the statistics (actual numbers) produced by your own departments, funded by you 'er us. Common Ground has some facts I'm sure you don't want to see. You are very good at sensationalizing and generalizing...starting with the Urban Traveler (hippie) to the passive dysfunctional. I'd also like to know what is passive about being dysfunctional...that they are out of your sight or that you can't see or imagine the internal terror?

I had the privilege of volunteering with Transition House and wonder why no mention of them, they are the model you espouse, how about a mil or two instead of brick crosswalks? Or The Hotel de Riviera or Salvation Army Center or the Sober Station for that matter. All models that have proven successful.

If you want to know why we have the mentally ill on the streets Reagan set them loose. I have a cousin who was in Norwalk Mental Hospital when Then Governor Reagan shut them all down. My cousin was lucky he has family. Many didn't and were left to fend for themselves on the streets. Maybe your bum on the bench should have figured out a profit model for psychiatric hospitals. Maybe you and Randy should figure that out while you are living off the government. Maybe the other guy is the investment banker who bribed the politician and put the bum on the bench?

joerak (anonymous profile)
September 24, 2013 at 10:04 a.m. (Suggest removal)

"Finally, there are the inebriates"
guess he has 'em all tied up into nice and tidy boxes, din't he?
Anybody else think he missed any categories?
Take away the house, maybe the car, the income, live like that for a month and you just might think outside Frank's boxes.

spacey (anonymous profile)
September 24, 2013 at 12:48 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Life in the Hotchkiss Bubble has now become opaque.

John_Adams (anonymous profile)
September 24, 2013 at 2:29 p.m. (Suggest removal)


"Heck the De Anza expedition was made up of drifters looking to find a better climate and opportunity. They slept rough and depended on the kindness of strangers."

Care to backup that statement with some facts? If not I call complete and utter Internet B.S.

As a Anza Descendant Family, I will provide fact from the NPS and not the Los Californianos to weed out all bias.

"One hundred and forty pack mules are being taken to carry
provisions, munitions of war, the baggage of all persons going, and
other effects of the expedition, and presents brought in the name of his
Majesty for the heathen on the way.
Item: Twenty-five pack mules belonging to members of the troop.
Item: Two hundred and twenty saddle animals belonging to the
Item: One hundred and twenty saddle animals belonging to
member of the
Item: Three hundred and two beef cattle to provision the
expedition and for
the succor of the new establishments."

The core of the expedition consisted of Spanish Basque from modern day Culiacan, Sinaloa and Horcasitas, Sonora, Mexico, hardly drifters, yes they were poor living in the very harsh climate of the desert but hardly drifters.

Who would not want to relocate to the lands of California, is that not why all you yankee carpetbaggers come to coastal California.

howgreenwasmyvalley (anonymous profile)
September 25, 2013 at 9:04 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Wow howgreenwasyourvalley? You went all Californio on my DeAnza reference. I am sorry if I offended the memory of your great, great, great, great, great, great....grandfather / grandmother who was on the expedition. You know that when you go back that far you have perhaps three hundred other ancestors. I am sure that they all were puro Californios as well, no Yankees carpetbaggers in the wood pile! I like history as you do, bnut I do not try to increase my credibility by playing the ancestor card.

Herschel_Greenspan (anonymous profile)
September 25, 2013 at 11:10 a.m. (Suggest removal)


"Heck the De Anza expedition was made up of drifters looking to find a better climate and opportunity. They slept rough and depended on the kindness of strangers."

Care to backup that statement with some facts? If not I call complete and utter Internet B.S

No ancestor card needed, back up with historical references your claim quoted above. I provided a paper published by the United States Government, National Park Service that totally debunks your claims.

Your opinion does not pass the historical smell test or do you practice revisionist History.

The Anza History is well documented from many sources and scholars, No Drifters, involved.

At least show some integrity and support your claim.

Making erroneous claims and then failing to support them, really means a total lack of credibility in all comments made on any subject.

howgreenwasmyvalley (anonymous profile)
September 26, 2013 at 10:34 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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