The number of homeless deaths in Santa Barbara has reached a crisis point, according to advocates, following news that three more homeless people — two men and a woman — died on the streets of Santa Barbara over the weekend. The deaths mark five homeless deaths in 2010, and six in the last six weeks. The number of homeless deaths last year jumped to 28, up from 18 in 2008.
As rain continued to fall in Santa Barbara Tuesday, a contingent of homeless advocates poured into the Board of Supervisors meeting to express the need for help from the county. A day earlier, members of that same contingent convened a press conference where, with a wall full of the names of the homeless who have died in Santa Barbara over the years serving as a backdrop, the group called for the county — cooperating with community groups — to immediately open warming centers during periods of cold or significant rain, to install a Joint Commission on Homeless Death and Violence, and to bump up resources for detox and improved mental health facilities. “Santa Barbara has got to decide: ‘Are we going to accept this?’” said county social worker Ken Williams. “These are citizens of our city and our country. They have as much a right to be here as I do.”
Not too much is known about the three who died over the weekend. The first, a 43-year-old female named Christin, was found dead Saturday morning behind JJ’s Liquor near Pershing Park on Castillo. The woman was well known to police. She was found outdoors, but not in a sleeping bag, with a couple of empty alcohol containers nearby.
Two victims were found under the Highway 101 Milpas Street overpass; the first, named Mike, was found Saturday morning. He slept there with other homeless the prior night, out of the rain, drinking and taking pills before sleeping. He did not wake up and was blue by 9 a.m. He had some sleeping gear with him at the time. He was 43.
The third victim was found not long after midnight Sunday. The male was lying down, obviously deceased. According to police, this man, a 52-year-old, had been cited or arrested four times for alcohol-related offenses. A friend nearby had noticed him unresponsive at 11 p.m., but thought it was due to his alcohol abuse, police said. Police don’t believe foul play was an issue in any of the three deaths and are waiting for autopsies to be completed.
Given the growing concern about deaths on the streets of Santa Barbara, 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr said she would be placing an item on the agenda for next week’s board meeting with the intent to explore, review, and possibly update the county’s protocol when it came to providing shelter for the homeless in periods of inclement weather. During the storm last week and continuing through the rains this week, the Unitarian Society has opened its doors to the homeless. For six days in a row last week, Dr. Lynne Jahnke said, the warming center had 40 people stay there, with some even sleeping outside under the building’s overhang. “It was a drop in the bucket compared to the people still on the streets,” she said.
What the group is looking for is not a programming shelter, but a temporary warming center where the homeless can sit and sleep and stay warm during times of bad weather.
According to Michele Mickiewicz with the Public Health Department, there is a protocol for when the government gets involved, but it is not directly connected to inclement weather. Shelters such as the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission have a program capacity and then an overflow capacity that can be extended in times of inclement weather such as last week. Should that overflow capacity be topped, the county would contact the city, which would take action.
Casa Esperanza has been at its capacity of 200 and cannot house any more people overnight because of its conditional use permit. The Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, however, was near or at program capacity, but still had room for overflow capacity during last week’s cold and rain. Some homeless have expressed reluctance about entering the Rescue Mission, citing alleged mandatory religious indoctrination coupled with overly strict rules. Though the Rescue Mission used to require attendance at a chapel service (and many locations still do), the Rescue Mission in Santa Barbara ended the practice two years ago. This could keep the Rescue Mission from reaching capacity, though administrators said they have never had to turn anyone away because of space limitations.
And while some in the group are asking for a declaration of a state of emergency, inclement weather is not necessarily reason for the county health officer to declare an emergency, Mickiewicz explained. If temperatures in the low 40s and rain were enough to declare an emergency, she noted, much of the country would be in a state of emergency for a good chunk of the year. “The weather we experienced this week did not qualify as a local state of emergency,” she said.