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.


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