How can homeless numbers be going up and down at the same time? Emily Allen explains.

The growing disconnect between measurable reality and public perception was highlighted by the results of this year’s biennial homeless count, which reveals the number of homeless people throughout the city of Santa Barbara, has actually dropped over the past two years despite the dramatic increase in public discourse on the issue. 

According to the most recent “Point-In-Time Count,” as it is officially known, the number of homeless people countywide has remained pretty much the same ​— ​1,803 this year as opposed to 1,860 two years ago. But in the City of Santa Barbara ​— ​always the largest homeless population center ​— ​the recorded numbers dropped by 100, from 987 to 887. 

Even if the total number of homeless people within Santa Barbara city limits is down, Allen said, the total number of unsheltered homeless could be up. That ​— ​coupled with this year’s freezing rains ​— ​might explain why it seems more homeless people have been chased by the elements from places of seclusion and isolation to freeway underpasses and more publicly visible places. In addition, an appeals court ruling issued last fall ​— ​known as the Boise Decision ​— ​has restricted the ability of law enforcement agencies to cite or arrest people for merely lying or sleeping in public spaces. Boise notwithstanding, police can and do stop people from erecting tents on public land or amassing more possessions than they can carry. Likewise, the city’s “sit-lie” ordinance allows police to cite for sitting or lying on public sidewalks on the first 13 blocks of State Street and the first block of East Haley Street. 

Biennial homeless surveys are required by the Department of Housing Urban Development (HUD) for local governments receiving federal homeless assistance funds. For the first time, Allen said, volunteers encountered a homeless mother with a young child living on the streets. “We’ve had families in shelters before, but this was a single mom with a young minor on the streets,” she said. “That’s different.” Thirty-seven percent stay in shelters, and 27 percent live in their cars; 118 are veterans, 423 reported being chronically homeless, 93 are youth or young adults, and 368 are homeless alongside members of their family. Of those surveyed, 77 percent claimed Santa Barbara as their last permanent address and 76 percent said they were living in Santa Barbara when they first became homeless.

These stats, Allen said, rebut the popular perception of Santa Barbara being awash with homeless people drawn to the area by its accommodating weather, tolerant policing, and generous do-gooders. To the extent that perception has a basis in fact, Allen said, it’s rooted in the waves of young travelers who stop off in Santa Barbara on their ways elsewhere. Their numbers, she noted, were not that high, but January typically is not the time of year for travelers. 

In the meantime, the City of Santa Barbara has just received a $2 million state grant to help address homelessness. Those funds will target the top 50 consumers of law enforcement and emergency room resources. Collaborating in this effort will be Cottage Hospital, city “restorative” police officers, the Housing Authority, and street outreach workers hired by City Net, a faith-based outfit out of Orange County. When City Hall first sought this grant, it was for $6 million and would have included 40 “tiny homes” to be built on the public parking lot by Castillo and Carrillo streets. The tiny-home proposal generated intense backlash, and City Hall quickly backed off. 

Lastly, a federal judge just tossed out part of a lawsuit filed last fall on behalf of RV dwellers against a city ordinance making it illegal for “oversized vehicles” to park on city streets. Homeless rights advocates charged the ordinance ​— ​passed on the grounds that oversized vehicles posed a safety hazard to motorists ​— ​was a subterfuge to discriminate against the poor. A federal judge denied that argument. The ordinance also requires oversized vehicle drivers with handicapped driving permits to get special exemption permits from city parking officials. The lawsuit objected this requirement exceeded the authority of city government because it intruded upon the relationship between doctors and patients. That argument in the lawsuit remains to be determined.


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