Santa Barbara Battles Gang Violence With Innovative Programs

City Officials Tackle Public Safety Issues During COVID-19 Pandemic

Mayor Cathy Murillo | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Santa Barbara has seen a recent spike in crimes as an unintended side effect of the stay-at-home order, mostly related to youth gangs and domestic violence. City and community leaders announced Monday that they are snuffing out the uptick through several trailblazing efforts.

“Even before the pandemic, we had seen an increase in street violence,” said Mayor Cathy Murillo. “But the situation was made worse by our teens losing the structure of their school schedule, being forced to stay at home with their families who are under financial pressure, and by being limited in recreational opportunities.” 

The solution, Murillo said, is a new program called Youth Responders, which aims to give structure and purpose to youth ages 11 to 19. Participants can earn community service hours and gift card stipends by working in food packing and distribution in collaboration with the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County and grocery stores that have surplus food.

“Adult outreach volunteers are recruiting at-risk youth to this program that brings them new skills, teaches them discipline, and gives them a sense of purpose during this difficult time,” Murillo said of the program, which launches next week.

She was joined by Saul Serrano, the South Coast Task Force on Youth Safety Coordinator. Serrano added to Murillo’s list of ways the pandemic negatively impacts youth. He said they are experiencing “virtual fatigue” as a result of online school and are being released to their parents instead of being incarcerated for street crimes to avoid overcrowding in jails.

Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez, who represents District 1 on the Eastside, and Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez, who represents District 3 on the Westside, also announced a new initiative. They plan to unite their two neighborhoods that have historically clashed. Eastside and Westside gang members have had a long-standing rivalry that ebbs and flows.

Santa Barbara Police Chief Lori Lunhow

“I’m pleased to announce that Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez and I are joining together to build a bridge between the Eastside and Westside,” Alejandra said. “We are introducing the One Community Bridge Program.”

Their program is focused on reducing gang violence by utilizing nonprofit partnerships and evidence-based research. It also is meant to highlight the contributions that Eastside and Westside Latino residents have made in their communities. The specifics are still in the works, but Alejandra said it would be implemented in time for “the new normal” after the pandemic subsides.

Lori Luhnow, Santa Barbara Chief of Police, gave statistics on crime spikes in Santa Barbara. She compared data from this time last year to now and said there was a 200 percent increase in gang-related crimes — three reports last year compared to nine this year. She also reported a 20 percent increase in robberies — from 10 to 12 — and an 11 percent increase in aggravated assaults: 28 reports to 31.

“There has been an uptick in crime since the stay at home orders were put in place,” Luhnow said. “This is definitely a time that people that prey on the community do not get a free pass.”

Homelessness came up at the conference, too. Laura Dubbels, the city’s housing and human services manager, cited the transmission of COVID-19 between homeless individuals as another public safety issue the city is squashing. In addition to the eight MarBorg porta-potties installed throughout downtown for the homeless and 68 motel rooms converted to shelter, they also are rolling out a new food program.

“The new, creative program beginning this week is the first of its kind,” Dubbels said. “It was coordinated by SBACT and it’s called the community food collaborative. They are investing in local restaurants, chefs who are out of work, and food suppliers to prepare and distribute meals to our unsheltered population.”

She said they will serve 250 meals two times per week for eight weeks. She called it a “win win” for both local businesses and the homeless population.  

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