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Salvation Army’s Homeless Plan Bites Dust in Santa Barbara

Good Intentions Destroyed by Bad Planning and No Community Outreach

Santa Barbara City Councilmember Jason Dominguez | Credit: Paul Wellman

It’s a sad and sorry matchup. On one side is all the aggrieved outrage of a neighborhood under siege coupled with more entitlement than my taste buds can handle. On the other is the inexcusable ineptitude of those who mean well and all the sorry uselessness of their best intentions. But the dead body lying on the floor is the possibility of any change in the way we do ​— ​and don’t ​— ​do things when it comes to homelessness. It’s all over, as they say, but the shouting.

Invest in earplugs.

Sparking the latest conflagration of excessive human emotion is a proposal by the Salvation Army to install 14 rooms of permanent supportive housing on Alisos Street for homeless people who if otherwise left on the streets will slowly self-destruct at significant expense and inconvenience to the rest of the community. It’s a “housing first” project, meaning you first get the homeless people indoors and under a roof, and then you bombard them with all the necessary services. Not only is this approach infinitely more effective when it comes to turning lives around, but it’s vastly cheaper than the catch-and-release mode of managing homelessness. Everyone loves this idea, until, of course, such a project is proposed in their particular neighborhood. Then it becomes the Night of the Living Dead.

To prevent this from occurring, it was incumbent upon the Salvation Army ​— ​which quietly does a ton of great work with homeless people without a peep of neighborhood complaint out of its Chapala Street digs ​— ​to notify Alisos Street residents, meet with them one on one, and then modify its proposal to indicate that some actual listening had transpired. Sadly, tragically, and pathetically, none of that happened. Instead, the proposal was sprung on the neighborhood at the last minute. The first public “discussion” took place two weeks ago, and by Santa Barbara standards, it was as ugly as it gets. 

Making the wound even more self-inflicted was the inexplicably glaring omission of any on-site residential management from the plan. Duh! The Salvation Army ​— ​which has been in Santa Barbara for eons ​— ​should have known better. But so too should have the high-ranking chin scratchers at City Hall. They should have seen this coming and given a red-flag warning. Who can forget the furious backlash that erupted in their face last fall when City Hall announced ​— ​at the very last second ​— ​plans to build a homeless village of 40 “tiny home” trailers on the parking lot by Castillo and Carrillo streets? That proposal, in contrast to the Alisos Street plan, had gobs of on-site management proposed. As creative and innovative as it was, that project was doomed. Timing is everything.

Even so, some of the rhetoric emanating from the aggrieved neighbors has been overly ripe. The Eastside, they complain, has already been afflicted with the MarBorg vast garbage plant ​— ​which they never wanted ​— ​not to mention the city’s wastewater treatment plant, which they never wanted either. And now this?

When large numbers of human beings get compared to trash and sewage, I tend to wince. When City Councilmember Jason Dominguez, now running for two offices at the same time, compared the housing proposal to a “toxic waste dump” at a recent candidates’ forum, ouch! Another council candidate, Brian Campbell ​— ​running to represent the Mesa district ​— ​induced considerable whiplash and jaw-droppage at another candidates’ forum when he suggested the Mesa was at risk of “becoming a skid row.” Dominguez, seeking some atonement, is now pushing the council to figure out a path for other such projects to get through the city’s permitting process.

The good news, if statistics are to be believed, is that the number of homeless people in the city and county of Santa Barbara has gone down ever so slightly down in the past two years. But the scary news is that there’s been a 27 percent increase in those living on the streets ​— ​or in cars ​— ​and outside of shelters.

In Santa Barbara, we’ve been wringing our hands over homeless people for so long now our fingers are bloody. Words like exhaustion, fatigue, despair, and futility dominate the conversation. In this context, it’s especially encouraging to learn that the friars from the Old Mission and the sisters from St. Vincent’s quietly opened a day center for homeless people 10 months ago. It’s been operating Monday through Friday, 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon, located in a strip mall just off State Street by Highway 154. About 35-40 people show up each day. To attend, you have to join what’s called the Companionship Club. Members get free food donated by Lazy Acres and a place to sleep or rest, and you can paint or get your feet washed and massaged by Sister Margaret. More than 200 have joined. Since it opened, there’s been one complaint.

It can be done. It can happen.

The smoking gun for the Alisos Street project, it turns out, has been hiding in plain sight. It’s on page two of the Salvation Army’s application for the $2.5 million emergency homeless grant it got from the state. When asked to describe efforts to win community support, the Salvation Army replied, “Not applicable.” Based on “initial conversations with the City Community Development Department,” Army brass were confident “no zoning change is required.” 

Not applicable? How tone deaf can you be? Community support is always applicable, no matter how necessary, humane, enlightened, and essential your proposal may be. 

It’s pretty obvious we need to try something different. Thirty more years of catch-and-release seems pretty stupid. Either way, I’m investing in earplugs.

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