Steve Price was nowhere to be seen in City Hall’s Room 15 for the informal confab convened this Monday evening by Mayor Cathy Murillo and Councilmember Kristen Sneddon to deal with homeless people and their shopping carts. But he may as well have been.
A onetime crackerjack CBS television news reporter, Price has been on the streets of Santa Barbara the past 18 years. He and his shopping carts — which contain an avalanche of recent drawings and art supplies — can often be seen near Santa Barbara’s courthouse, where Price spends considerable time both as artistic observer and criminal defendant.
Court records indicate Price has been booked into County Jail no fewer than 32 times; his own attorney suggests Price has faced criminal charges — always misdemeanors — 67 times since 2008.
Over the years, Price has undeniably enriched the cultural ecosystem of the county courthouse with his satiric sketches and engaging personality. Judge Brian Hill, for example, has afforded Price the respect and affection once reserved for court jesters. But when upset, Price can cut a genuinely frightening figure, shouting loudly and angrily at no one in particular.
It’s little wonder, then, that Price’s name was invoked more than once when a subcommittee of the Santa Barbara City Council began processing two new proposed ordinances designed to allow city cops to crack down on errant shopping carts and personal belongings left in public.
The blowback from the two ordinances is now gathering serious momentum. Sara Miller McCune, a prominent philanthropist in liberal Democratic political circles, objected. The council seemed intent on waging “yet another war on the homeless,” she wrote on October 29. “Don’t you have more important things to do?”
Jumping in feet first was attorney Joseph Doherty, who for 20 months defended Price as an employee of the Public Defender’s office. Doherty has just recently left that position to create the People’s Justice Project, a new legal-rights initiative designed to help homeless people deal with the blizzard of criminal charges they face.
Doherty, who continues to represent Price, issued a three-page legal challenge to City Hall’s proposal to make it easier for city cops to impound personal belongings bigger than a backpack left in public spaces. “There should be areas around public buildings (such as the courthouse and the library) where people can lock up their mobile storage units,” Doherty argued. “Everyone needs to be treated fairly and with respect.”
Although City Attorney Ariel Calonne insisted his office is taking pains to ensure due process will be observed before anyone’s property is seized and that City Hall would not be criminalizing homeless people, Mayor Murillo and Councilmember Sneddon joined forces to have both items yanked from further consideration by the council’s Ordinance Committee.
Sneddon, who chairs the Ordinance Committee, had voted against the personal-belongings proposal, arguing the council should explore the creation of drop-off centers first. Sneddon, however, found herself on the losing side, and the committee voted to refer the matter to the council as a whole. The council’s normal legislative assemblyline was disrupted when Murillo jumped in, agreeing that more focus needed to be given to the creation of drop-off centers first.
To that end, Murillo and Sneddon met with a handful of longtime homeless service providers, homeless rights advocates, and related government types in Room 15, which adjoins the council chambers. For about 90 minutes, they explored the pros and cons of various logistical alternatives, but found consensus — even among people sympathetic to homeless concerns — as elusive as wrestling a greased pig.
The number of questions exceeded answers. Would rotating pop-ups work? Could churches be enlisted to provide such service? Could the industrial bike locker storage boxes that used to be located at the MTD bus depot be used? Could such a spot be used as a venue where service-resistant individuals could be enticed into getting services? Should it be supervised, and if so, by whom?
Cautionary warnings abounded. Efforts to create such centers in other communities have encountered their fair share of problems; some proved more troublesome and costly than they were worth. But the hidden cost of locking people up for violating new laws, others warned, was not insubstantial either.
As always, there was much debate about balancing the immediate short-term needs of a storage area — where people could stow their stuff while visiting doctors, relatives, or the DMV — with the long-term needs of supportive housing, which most involved agreed did not exist in the numbers needed. (In the past week, the Salvation Army pulled the plug on its proposal to provide 14 units of permanent supportive housing on Alisos Street in the face of withering neighborhood opposition and the credible threat of prolonged legal entanglements. The $2.5 million in state homeless grants it had secured would expire if not spent by June 2021.)
Sneddon left after an hour, evidently impatient with the sprawling focus of the discussion.
All players at the table agreed, however, that the council should not have hatched the two new ordinances without first asking for help addressing the behavior giving rise to them in the first place. Murillo pushed back, saying that she’s heard from people worried about “losing control of the streets” as has happened in parts of Los Angeles. She cited clusters of squatters who for a while occupied sidewalks by Laguna Street near the freeway.
Jeff Shaffer, a longtime faith-based service provider, argued the first course of action would be to figure out how many individuals might actually benefit from such a storage center and go from there. “How many people are we actually talking about here?” he asked. The second question, he added, is whether they’d use it.
As for Steven Price, he wasn’t there. But when asked about it afterward, he stated, “Every homeless vet lives like a squirrel. We all need to hide our winter nuts. So yes, every creature great and small needs some type of storage.”