A line forms otside the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

Nothing like trying to solve the problems of the universe on a shoestring budget to make patience short and tempers hot, as members of the Santa Barbara City Council found out the hard way this Tuesday. Councilmember Michael Jordan sharply questioned the way the city’s Human Services Committee doles out federal social service dollars — $902,000 this coming year — to a myriad of nonprofits, especially those dealing with people who are homeless. 

Adopting an unusually outspoken tone, Jordan argued that the small sums City Hall traditionally allotted to 30-40 organizations has done precious little to get homeless people off the streets but has instead been spent “to just sustain the status quo” — socially problematic lifestyles for individuals not inclined to accept help or to change their ways. Jordan pointedly challenged his fellow councilmembers to reconsider their priorities carefully in allocating limited federal dollars. 

Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez, who formerly served on the Human Services Committee, took exception to Jordan’s remarks, stating, “I find them kind of insulting — no, not kind of, but actually insulting.” Jordan’s critiques, she stated, were not informed. “We need to do our homework before we say things in public.” Jordan had predicted before the meeting that the discussion might get testy but still seemed taken aback by the vehemence of the blowback. 

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Jordan and Councilmember Eric Friedman both expressed a sense of urgency and alarm that in the past two weeks, City Hall found itself forced to remove a cluster of tent dwellers — maybe as many as 70 — who’d set up camp near East Beach. Homeless outreach workers working with CityNet showed up in response, offering motel vouchers to any takers. Only a handful reportedly accepted. Those who declined were given 72-hour notice to move. After having done so, many quickly returned, Jordan and Friedman explained during separate interviews. Both expressed concern about the numbers. Both suggested many of the people showing up in Santa Barbara after COVID come from other communities looking for a soft place to roost. 

“I’m really hearing from the community,” said Councilmember Friedman, “from all parts of town. This is an issue we have to address.” 

Councilmember Gutierrez, who sparked City Hall’s effort to evict squatters living under the Cacique Street Bridge earlier this year, did not dispute the problem Jordan alluded to so much as his approach in dealing with it. He should talk to the people on the Human Service Committee, she said, who put in countless hours and much hard work, deciding how to spread out limited resources. “We all lead busy lives,” she stated, “but we also need to learn what they’re doing.” 

Mayor Cathy Murillo also bristled at Jordan’s tone, noting that city administrators already had changed the funding priorities to target organizations working on basic survival issues such as food, shelter, medical care and mental health. 

Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to approve the new funding priorities. When it came Jordan’s turn to vote, he joined the majority, but not before stating, “I hope it’s not an insult if I support this.” 

[UPDATE 10/28] While there is no doubt that downtown has seen a significant uptick in visual homeless encampments — by the beach and freeway and in creek beds and industrial neighborhoods — the exact facts surrounding the East Beach cleanup have yet to be determined. Homeless outreach workers question whether that many tents were located by East Beach and likewise cautioned that they only have a few motel room vouchers to offer. It would be customary, they added, to have only a few individuals take them up on the offer.

Brad Fieldhouse of CityNet took exception to the notion that homeless people are gravitating to Santa Barbara because of the South Coast’s supposed abundance of amenities.  That perception, he said, is common to every community in Southern California. The reality is that 27 percent of all homeless people in the country now live in California, he said.

Laura Dubbels, the city’s point person for homeless issues, stated that outreach workers had been dispatched to East Beach, where she reported there were seven tents. She stated that there were no motel vouchers to offer, but that the tent dwellers were encouraged to take advantage of openings at the Rescue Mission. Seventy-two hour notices were issued, she confirmed, acknowledging that some returned after having left. 

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