Starbucks, corner of State and Victoria, 8:30AM, April First, 2016.
About a dozen people are here this morning, mostly getting coffee before work. But three, plastic bags and assorted canvas containers spread at their feet, are clearly homeless. One is typing on his laptop. Another is listening to his cell phone. Others are less easily identified, like the somber and bearded old man in the corner staring aimlessly out the window, paper cup in hand. When I was broke and living out of my car for several months back in 2003, I would hang out in coffee shops to help soothe my sense of alienation from a former middle-class life. I do understand, but that doesn’t address the problem.
Bernie Sanders, the long-fighting senator, and blowhard Donald of the sky-scraping ego, speak to the frustration of millions. Where are we all headed here on State Street or even out in Death Valley? Scotty’s Castle would be great right now. Desert heat discourages the homeless and so do its room rates. But our lovely beach is a calling card across the nation for rich or poor. And the latter can camp out on it as well as in its adjacent parks. Such blessings … for them at least.
But speaking of camping out, why hasn’t that money-saving option been smartly considered? There is only so much low-income housing to be built here in our tile-topped city. Land development is way too expensive and limited. Our prison population now lives in the most expensive structures in America, and they are now being crowded out. Nor do they function well as mental institutions or addiction treatment clinics. What a fiasco. In the juvenile world, jails often function as homeless shelters for street kids. You may not like the treatment, but at least you get free meals and a dry place to sleep. Among these displaced kids, the slammer is called “The Crowbar Hotel.”
What the hell are we doing here in Santa Barbara and across the country, for that matter? Two famous prison wardens, Thomas Merton and William Nagel, advocated that tent cities to be built to house nonviolent detainees. The majority of those now held in prisons have not even been sentenced. Guilt or innocence has not been determined! Yet there they are by the millions, literally. What are we thinking?
We now have the homeless all over our streets anywhere where the climate does not drive them away. Tents, that’s all it takes for shelter from storm. As for the problems of mental illness and/or addiction, to say nothing of a threatened middle class, we have to get more serious. Treatment and safe recovery periods must be instituted with compassion and competence. Training for life-supporting work must be provided. Child-care services must be available to anyone in need. Well-meaning but uncoordinated private, public, and church charities won’t answer these needs unless brought under a properly consolidated plan of attack. None of this is impossible if city administrators, coastal property owners, and a compassionate public simply demand that we get the job done. No fooling, despite the date of this appeal. I’m pushing 80. Time for a new generation to tackle the issues intelligently.
Ron Atwood is a citizen of Santa Barbara and the former Manpower Development and Training director for the county way back in 1965-67.