Why Santa Barbara County Needs a Homeless Czar

Progress Is Being Made, Just Not Fast Enough

Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

WHAT’S IN A NAME:  Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to be “czar?” It’s a title so powerful that it doesn’t need — nor would it tolerate — an “a” in front of it. One simply is czar, which decidedly is not to be confused with its syphilitic kissing cousin “tsar,” a title that reeks of aristocratic inbreeding and mothballs. The issue came to a head this Tuesday when City Councilmember Eric Friedman asked Kimberlee Albers whether what is really needed is a “homeless czar?” 

At the time, they were then discussing an impenetrably dense report — 104 pages long — that Albers was presenting on the county’s latest plan to address homelessness. Albers, being the county’s de facto homeless czar — though without the furs and scepter — all too predictably answered no. Santa Barbara, she said, already has a stakeholder group that has 27 members guiding the 180 groups dealing with homelessness one way or the other. 

Also, another such commission is made up of elected officials from each of the eight cities and the County of Santa Barbara. This Tuesday, for example, the council voted to appoint Mayor Cathy Murillo and Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez to serve on it. 

In other words, yes, we absolutely need a Homeless Czar. 

Albers is endowed with a rare sense of mission, a bulletproof optimism that is contagious, and an uncanny ability to juggle 19 plates while doing summersaults and somehow still keep smiling. She is, in other words, utterly invaluable. But she is totally incapable of uttering simple declarative sentences, such as “Let there be light.”

We need a Homeless Czar. Hope is good. Fear might be helpful, too.

The subliminal reality to which Albers alluded throughout her remarks — though she will swear she didn’t — is the crushing need for a new bed tax, sales tax, or property tax to create a sustainable year-in-year-out revenue stream upon which we can rely when all the millions in one-time state and federal dollars starts drying up this coming June. The political cognoscenti tell us now is not the time. Wait a few years, they say.

Only Councilmember Michael Jordan, onetime mouthpiece and representative for hospitality industry and downtown merchants, has been so foolhardy as to stick his neck out on favor of this. Jordan, an enthusiastic but impatient mansplainer, has the urgent energy possessed only by Johnny-come-latelies to the cause. Even before there was ink on the documents, Jordan came out loudly and preemptively in favor of a plan to transform the abandoned youth hostel at the bottom of Chapala Street into transitional homeless housing. And he represents the district where this will happen. 

Prior efforts to build much-needed homeless housing — one on Alisos Street and another at the Castillo-Carrillo street parking lot — died on the vine, the victims of bureaucratic self-immolation, stupidity, and NIMBY outrage.

To get any tax passed, voters will need to perceive progress is being made. Despite what appears to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary on the streets, it is. As Albers noted, in the past two years, 585 people have gotten housed, and 20,000 bed nights of shelter have been provided; 270 households have gotten rental assistance; 173 homeless people — those at highest risk — have gotten emergency housing in hotels. Of those, 80 have found permanent housing.

Two weeks ago, the council approved half a million bucks on a similar “hoteling” plan. Within one day, all 15 beds were fully occupied.

Even so, the fastest rising homeless sub-population are people living in cars and vans. New Beginnings’ Safe Parking Program — started in 2004 — is by far the cheapest, safest, most practical, and most necessary program that addresses this need. Yet the program’s sparse inventory of 150 parking spaces is holding stubbornly steady.

Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez asked Albers a great question Tuesday: What are the churches and corporations doing? When it comes to parking spaces, not nearly enough. In fact, many of the churches that were once mainstays of the program have pulled out. No doubt they have their reasons. But what about Sears and Costco, with their vast oceanic parking lots? How many car campers could they accommodate? 

Short answer? A whole lot more than they do. 

Ask city functionaries, and they suck in their breaths and note ruefully how the Sears lot has many owners. Maybe a call from a Homeless Czar — making them an offer they can’t refuse — would simplify things. Maybe City Hall has some tit to exchange for Sears’ tat, some quid for the churches’ quo. Maybe if we had a Homeless Czar, City hall would not embarrass itself passing “neutral” ordinances regulating feral shopping carts or banning oversized vans from parking on city streets.

The good news is not that Nomadland — a movie about older people forced by death and economic displacement into vans and RVs — just won the Oscar for Best Film. The good news is that Congressmember Salud Carbajal saw fit to introduce a bill — named after his former boss, mentor, and ultimate political mamma bear supervisor Naomi Schwartz — to create new federal funding opportunities for programs like Safe Parking. Under Carbajal’s proposal, local governments could apply for up to $5 million to fund such programs. Such funding would go a very long way to help defray the costs of running these programs. It would not, however, make parking spaces magically appear. Maybe some private property owners now threatening to create an armed militia of private security cops on State Street could help out. 

Did you know “czar” is a Slavic bastardization of the word “Caesar?” 

We need a Homeless Czar.



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