For four very long hours it was the best of times, it was the worst of times within the Santa Barbara City Council chambers late Tuesday afternoon, the roiling issue at hand being — as always — homeless people. The good news — a possible sea change in the South Coast’s ability to respond to the homelessness challenge — is the role Cottage Hospital is stepping up to play. Though only now beginning to take root, Cottage has committed serious dollars, serious resources, and its considerable institutional credibility to this effort.
A $2 million state homeless grant secured by the City of Santa Barbara is designed to focus on the 50 most frequent, expensive, and demanding consumers of emergency services. Cottage will provide a registered nurse to accompany restorative city police officers as they make their rounds among the most intractable of the homeless people in downtown. The hope is that this will reduce the 155 visits these 50 people make each month to Cottage, mostly, but far from exclusively, to the emergency room. If it succeeds, it would be a game changer.
In a separate and important initiative, Cottage is offering, for the first time, 10 recuperative beds at People Assisting The Homeless (PATH), accompanied by skilled nursing staff and medical oversight, for up to 90 days. That program, a partnership with CenCal, was launched in October. Since then, 13 patients have received treatment, the same 13 patients who, six months before the program began, had sought treatment at the hospital 73 times. In a separate but related initiative, Cottage is also expanding the recuperative care it provides to homeless patients when released from the hospital.
As part of the broader homeless collaborative, Cottage will also be working closely with three street outreach workers hired by City Net, a faith-based group out of Orange County. City Net enjoys a reputation for relentlessness when it comes to reaching out to those living rough. Though Santa Barbara’s homeless outreach service providers grumbled that two of City Net’s staff have no prior experience with homeless people, City Net has demonstrated it could work closely with law enforcement agencies while remaining in the good graces of homeless rights organizations.
This is the first time that the Housing Authority, the Fire Department, and PATH, which runs the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter on Cacique Street, are all working together. The plan is to swarm the top 50 service consumers with so much attention, so many services, and so much computer-coordinated oversight that they will almost have no choice but to come in from the cold.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO HOUSES
All the homeless support groups testifying Tuesday preached the gospel of “Housing First,” an operating strategy that contends that the best way to get people off the streets is to get them under a roof first and then bombard them with the services needed to make significant life changes. The vast, gaping hole in Santa Barbara’s multimillion-dollar homeless response safety net, however, is the absolute lack of such housing. A previous incarnation of this grant last fall would have created a village of 44 “tiny homes” — modified trailers — at the commuter parking lot by Carrillo and Castillo streets. That proposal, sprung on the community at the last minute, failed in part because of neighborhood backlash, but mostly because the grant award proved to be considerably smaller than expected.
The big picture — at least according to Chuck Flacks with PATH, is that the number of homeless people counted on the streets of Santa Barbara has dropped by 25 percent in the past five years. PATH, he said, has managed to find some sort of housing for 100 homeless people a year. Emily Allen with Home for Good said AmeriCorps outreach workers spend a total of 497 hours each week on the streets and had managed to house 21 people in the last year, unifying 16 with their families.
PAYING TO NOT FIX THE PROBLEM
But all this good news evaporated when city administrator Matt Fore and homeless services czar Laura Dubbels began itemizing just how much City Hall spends each year dealing with the downstream impacts of homeless people. Every year, it costs about $1 million to underwrite homeless services. Every year, it also spends $3.7 million cleaning creeks, sweeping out camps, and responding to calls for services involving the police department, the library, and the parks department. That’s about 6,000 calls a year for the police department, or 7 percent of the department’s total call volume. Calls to the fire department constituted 20 percent of its volume, but no price tag was given. Factoring in every known expense, councilmembers ballparked the total cost of responding to homeless needs was $5 million a year.
Councilmember Jason Dominguez, whose district includes the PATH homeless shelter, did the political math thusly: City Hall spends $5 million a year dealing with the problems of homelessness; it spends $1 million a year trying to solve the problems of homelessness. “We need to flip that,” he declared. To that end, Dominguez proposed creating a new committee to get granular on proposed solutions. Of all the councilmembers, he was the loudest about the need to find housing for homeless people.
Perhaps the most searing testimony came from representatives of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, who testified that homeless people congregating in parks constitutes a public safety risk because of their often rude, threatening, and obnoxious behavior, not to mention the deposition of human feces and dirty needles. For parks employees, encounters with homeless people have created a hostile work environment and have damaged their morale. The time spent cleaning up dirty bathrooms and other messes is time that could be spent on services. Families are staying away from parks in greater numbers, parks spokespeople told the council, and enrollment in recreational programs is waning. The city needs to “reclaim” its parks. And the library, according to library administrator, Jessica Cadiente, has become the de facto day center for about 100 homeless people. She reported that she’s installed 40 security cameras, suspends about three homeless people a day for behavior problems, and is planning to hire a private security firm.
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon expressed reservations about that approach. Why not a coordinator instead, she asked, to help work with homeless people? “They need some place to go,” she argued. They can’t just be moved from one spot to the next. And not just at the library. Closing public restrooms will not be an answer, she said, since people still have to defecate even after the parks have been closed. It’s a matter of human dignity and public health, she argued. “What about opening more bathrooms?”
The most unexpected and politically volatile suggestion came from City Attorney Ariel Calonne, who indicated his office was contemplating filing a civil injunction that would bar individuals engaged in unlawful activities in parks and other public places. He cited the “intractability” of the problem as justification for what he acknowledged would be “an aggressive” response. Councilmember Meagan Harmon replied, “I would be remiss if I didn’t express my discomfort with injunctions in general as a tool,” adding, “I worry about the constitutionality of it.” Mayor Cathy Murillo echoed that sentiment. Calonne never explained exactly who or what behaviors would be targeted but assured councilmembers he could fashion something with enough precision and sensitivity to pass muster. “I’m not interested in their housing status,” he stated. He was focused on nuisance behavior. Calonne expressed mindfulness that the gang injunction pushed by his predecessor effectively “criminalized” being a Latino throughout one-third of the city and was shot down by Judge Colleen Sterne.
Calonne also hinted at new prosecution and enforcement initiatives coming out of his office; last year, he got approval and funding to hire a prosecuting attorney, whom he said could handle nuisance crime. Calonne warned the council against seeking to give too much direction or guidance in such initiatives. To do so, he said, would open the door to political interference in law enforcement matters, a problem highlighted, he said, by Donald Trump’s attempts to interfere with Robert Mueller’s special prosecutorial investigation of possible collusion between the White House and the Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. Calonne said he might feel comfortable notifying councilmembers of his intentions by sending them confidential memos.
THE PUBLIC SPEAKS UP AGAIN
Councilmembers got an earful from members of the public, too. Lorna Boyd said she witnessed countless drug deals on her daily walks of 7-10 miles a day and “live sex acts” on Milpas Street of “things I wouldn’t watch on television.” Boyd, who described herself as a homeless supporter and former volunteer at the homeless shelter, noted pointedly that she never saw any of the multitude of outreach workers she’d heard so much about early in the evening. Milt Hess, a member of the library advisory board, urged the council to create a day center for the homeless, a place where they could sit, use computers, shower, get services, and store their gear. (One local church is considering this as a once-a-week pop-up.) With all the homeless who congregate at the library, Hess noted, he’s never seen any engage in panhandling. “It’s their living room,” he said.
Ultimately, the council voted against creating yet another committee but opted instead to support ongoing efforts to rewrite the city’s liquor laws governing corner stories and neighborhood markets where single bottles of alcoholic beverages are typically sold. Likewise, it voted to support the crafting of a new ordinance holding grocery stores responsible for the security of their shopping carts.