The Santa Barbara Police Department is witnessing a new trend among one revolving but familiar demographic. According to a quarterly report, monthly statistics collected by SBPD show an increase in transient-related crimes between January and May 2016. At its peak in May, police reported 628 transient-related crimes, a number that exceeds the five-year monthly average of 348. This increase also follows a steady relative decline in the latter half of 2015, during which total transient-related crimes in December amounted to 366.
Though fluctuations like this have occurred in previous years, police spokesperson Sergeant Riley Harwood indicated the overall trend of transient-related crime in Santa Barbara, which can range from violent outbreaks to open-container citations, has remained relatively consistent and is not a point of concern. The cause of such fluctuations is, however, a little more difficult to pinpoint.
One reason, according to Harwood, lies in the tentative correlation between crime rates and homeless shelter policies. As shelters like PATH (previously known as Casa Esperanza) adopt policies that mandate sobriety in exchange for shelter and services, those unwilling to conform may opt to stay on the streets.
The rise may also be attributed to the increased number of units patrolling the downtown area to accommodate visitors of all economic backgrounds that flock in large numbers to Santa Barbara in the summertime. The higher crime rate may simply be the effect of more persistent policing.
Officer Keld Hove, whose eight years of service on the restorative policing team has helped some of Santa Barbara’s most chronically homeless, reminds residents that the increase in police activity is not for the benefit of tourist season. “We never go out to clean up the streets for tourists,” said Hove. “We, as police officers, are called to address crime of all kinds to make sure that people of all backgrounds subscribe to an acceptable standard.”
With 18 years of working with homeless in the downtown area, Hove points out that many crimes committed by transients are what he calls “lifestyle crimes,” or crimes result from private activity, like drinking or drug use, that for many homeless are, of necessity, carried out in the public sphere.
Amy Cooper, a 20-year Santa Barbara resident, said the homeless demographic, seemed to be changing. As the six-year owner and founder of Plum Goods, Cooper has had several encounters with individuals who seem “younger, aggressive, and more involved in illegal activity” outside her store. She’s reported a street fight and made several calls to police and animal control.
Hove, who has heard similar sentiments from residents and business owners over the years, is hesitant to corroborate such claims. “For the past 18 years I’ve been hearing that same complaint,” Hove said. “It is possible that there are more homeless on State Street, but I don’t know if that’s true. People have always tended to say that things seem worse than yesterday.”
On the other side of the debate is Jason Prystowsky, Goleta Cottage Hospital emergency room doctor by day and Doctors Without Walls – SB Street Medicine Medical Director by night. Along with a band of volunteers, he run weekly pop-up medical clinics in Alameda and Pershing parks.
“We can’t comment on the increase in homeless-related crime,” said Prystowsky. “However, we can comment on the increased volume of patients and increased variety of illness we see among them that is very much in line with national statistics.”
While Officer Hove and the majority of law enforcement deal with the chronically homeless — those who are houseless, mentally ill, and often suffer from addiction — Dr. Prystowsky sought to remind the community that homelessness affects so many more.
“There is a huge invisible homeless community of working people with jobs who are living out of cars,” said Prystowsky, who asserts that the label of homelessness is far bigger than most recognize it to be. “They are contributing members of society who are a reminder that a lot of us are just one natural disaster away from homelessness.”