It was another State Street monologue no one really wanted to witness. A tall young man — bearded, well dressed, and soiled — bent intently over a green trash can in front of a downtown bank and shouted into the abyss. I couldn’t make out the words, but the exchange apparently did not go well. After about 20 seconds, he jerked his head up, wheeled around, and marched angrily up the street, hollering at the top of his lungs. No one asked any questions. We already knew the answer: Get out of the way.
It’s an old story, one that Santa Barbara has been wringing its hands over for the past 35 years. Last week, the City Council heard what I’d say is by far the most promising, creative, and innovative proposal devised yet to address the issue. For the first time ever, Cottage Hospital, the Housing Authority, city cops, and the PATH homeless shelter are all sitting around the table, talking about working together. That’s never happened before. Instigating this newfound unity of purpose is $550 million in one-time-only grants the state legislature just made available for communities to deal with homelessness. Of that, Santa Barbara County will get about $9 million. The specific proposal discussed by the council would take about $6.5 million of that.
On the Richter scale of good news, this qualifies as a major earthquake.
Naturally, there’s a bad-news component involved, too. In this case, that’s how City Hall rolled it out. In fact, it’s hard to imagine it being done any worse.
A big part of the plan calls for the temporary installation of no fewer than 40 “tiny homes” — commonly known as “sheds with beds” — at the commuter parking lot by Castillo and Carrillo streets. This is where many of the 50 most chronic and expensive repeat customers who show up at Cottage Hospital’s emergency rooms and the Santa Barbara County Jail will live, we are told, but on a strictly transitional, supervised, temporary, and managed basis. These are the so-called Million-Dollar Murrays and Frequent Flyers who have been giving cops and social service providers fits. By placing them indoors in a supervised setting — with two security guards 24/7 and offices for a city cop — the theory goes, they can be more cheaply and efficiently bombarded with the array of mental-health, detox, health-care, and social services needed to turn their lives around. This is known in the lingo as the “Housing First” model. In terms of results, it reportedly beats the alternative — waiting for people who’ve declined such services for more than 20 years to show up on their own and ask for help
On paper, the plan makes massive sense. But for the neighbors living near the commuter lot, news of this proposal arrived like a lightning bolt. Not surprisingly, their hair is still smoldering. They first heard about the plan just two Saturday afternoons ago, when city flyers mysteriously appeared on the front doors of residents living within 300 feet of the proposed site. And that was just two days before the council first heard about the grant application. And it was given absolutely no time for deliberation. Any delay meant walking away from millions in one-time emergency homeless funds.
Were the neighbors upset?
Who wouldn’t be?
The whiplash-inducing suddenness of it all has sparked a cottage industry of conspiracy theories, including that city planners deliberately and maliciously hid the plan from the public until the last possible second to prevent any NIMBY opposition from rising up. I suspected as much myself.
I’ve since been persuaded otherwise. Although City Hall knew about the state grant since last spring, the exact terms of the grant application weren’t released until October 16. This gave the co-conspirators from the city, Cottage Hospital, and the Housing Authority less than a month to put together the details of a proposal. And only at the very end of October was it understood, I am told, that city parking lots were zoned to allow the installation of the tiny houses. If the timing was horrific, it was inadvertently so. It’s possible I’ve drunk too much Kool-Aid here, but I know from personal experience that conspiracies are exceptionally hard to execute.
After-the-fact public outreach has been scheduled for next Wednesday evening at the Louise Lowry Davis Center at 5:30. It should be lively. I would suggest that if Brad Fieldhouse — representing the Orange County nonprofit City Net, which is slated to receive $1 million from the grant to do hyper-persistent street outreach work — shows up, he refrain from calling such frequent attention to his size. During his presentation to the council, he mentioned he had big hands, that he was large, that people might be intimidated by his height and heft, and that in case you wondered, he was 6’7″. Some of us are wondering why an Orange County outfit had to be brought in to do street outreach. We were told the expression “service resistant” does not exist in City Net’s dictionary and that his crew is very persistent in connecting street people with services they might not think they need. Size apparently has its advantages.
The trash-can screamer has come and gone, replaced, at least for the moment, by an older man just bumped out of his elder-care facility. He tried the shelter but found the bed bugs not to his liking. He’s much quieter. No one will feel the need to get out of the way. But he’ll still be on the streets.