Ortega Park is an area jewel that has become tarnished in the past few years by an unlawful, unhealthy, and dangerous group. Some are longtime residents, some are transients, but all of them are people who deserve our love and respect.
The problem is an ongoing migration of 10-20 people who are taking advantage of this special place, misusing the community’s intended purpose and substantial investment. We all know the drill — yelling, fighting, intimidation, alcohol abuse, drug dealing, vandalism, and theft.
My briefcase, with laptop inside, was stolen from my nearby business when I walked away for three minutes. Fortunately, I have video surveillance and a relationship with a few of the guys who were involved in the theft. A quick response from the Santa Barbara Police, who reviewed the DVR and located the suspect, recovered my stuff quickly.
I walk the park every day with my dog, Lilly, and over the years I’ve become acquainted with some of these folks, whom I now consider my friends when they’re sober, but clearly they’re part of the problem when they’re intoxicated. Simply locking them up temporarily or moving them to another park in town is not the solution. These people are my “brothers and sisters,” and they deserve empathy, integrated support, and compassion in action.
They should not be exempt from obeying our laws of respect for others, safety, and decency. It’s clear that a small minority of habitual drug and alcohol abusers are not interested, or able, to use the park appropriately.
The Eastside Milpas area has seen a positive transformation these past few years. More and more businesses — from service to light-industry to high-tech — have moved in and upgraded the neighborhood, creating more local jobs. Our family-owned and operated business is one such job creator. Many of the residents have become our close friends.
Last Thursday, I attended a meeting held at the MTD boardroom regarding concerns with the park. I was surprised and disappointed to hear that a neighboring business across the street has decided to relocate due to the problems the owners have experienced with the criminal behavior that’s affecting her and her family. It would be a shame if we let any more businesses move out due to this public-safety issue.
Literally thousands of young people come in and out of this area on a daily basis, from sports organizations and families utilizing the park for recreation to several nonprofits such as Girls Inc. and the Boys & Girls Club, which are nearby. We also have Santa Barbara Dance Arts and the Paragon kickboxing gym, which have a steady flow of young people directly across the street from Ortega Park.
It was also disappointing, but understandable, to hear the owners and directors of these organizations say that they discourage their youth from using Ortega Park. The dance studio rep said via video that she knows parents who drive their kids from Santa Barbara Junior High to dance classes — a distance that is less than 1,000 feet! This should sound the alarm that we are in the process of losing a valuable natural and recreational resource in our community, not to mention increasing the potential for a dangerous situation.
This community did not invest in the rec center, pool, bathrooms, playground, grass, and recycled water irrigation to avoid using it.
The homeless issue in Santa Barbara will always be with us. We know it’s a complicated issue.
I’ve asked some of my friends there how we can solve this issue together, and they tell me that they simply need a place to go. I’ve encouraged several to join me in checking out the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission. No one’s taken me up, but I’m still trying.
The root of the problem, as I see it, is alcohol and drug abuse. When they are intoxicated or dealing drugs, their behavior should not be tolerated in any of our city’s parks. If for no other reason, it is intolerable for the sake and safety of our children.
Redirecting our youth away from utilizing Ortega Park, locking the bathrooms, removing park benches, and closing the park at sundown is waving the white flag of surrender. It’s not solving the problem — it simply relocates it.
On Thursday, I learned that many nearby residents, along with businessmen and women of this mixed-use residential and light-industry neighborhood, are doing their best to respect the rights of the transients and befriend the law-abiding users of the park. It’s clear from the tone of last night’s meeting that there is a concerted effort being led by 1st District Councilmember Jason Dominguez, who is coordinating the public, city staff, and law enforcement to respect and encourage the property use and all park users’ dignity and rights.
It’s time for local citizens to join the effort, to be a part of designing and participating in a coordinated effort of law enforcement, S.B. Parks department, and volunteer participation to utilize our best surveillance and community-relations resources to deal with this issue head-on.
Let’s engage in the solution together.