Is Santa Barbara Ready to Help Those Suffering Mental Illness?

Advocates Push County to Follow a Texas Model for Success

Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

CIRCUS MINIMUS:  Santa Barbara is crawling the walls. Or soon will be. Literally. On the 400 block of State Street where there once was a utilitarian, if oversized, office supply shop, they’re planning to install a new emporium for people who like to scale their mountains indoors.

Over at Vera Cruz Park — located across Cota Street from the Farmers’ Market parking lot that soon will be the brand-spanking-new police station — they will be setting up all the paraphernalia needed for up-and-coming trapeze artists. The high flyers who once swung through the air with the greatest of ease over by Earl Warren’s showgrounds will soon be flying over what’s popularly known as Needle Park. 

The subliminal theme running through these soon-to-be enterprises is “up,” which coincidentally is the direction that new development along the State Street corridor will be sprouting as well.

Clearly, State Street needs attention. But that’s nothing new. A city councilmember told me there are currently 52 vacant storefronts on State Street. I suspect he forgot to include Tienda Ho in that list, a shop that I think was founded way back in 1538 by descendants of Magellan who were much entranced with long-limbed women who wrapped themselves in long, flowing fabrics. Over the years, I never once saw anyone actually go into Tienda Ho and always marveled at its tenacity. But if a shop that could survive so long with no apparent customers can no longer make it, then we are in for dark times indeed. 

Just up the street from Tienda Ho, under one of the many architecturally graceful alcoves for which Santa Barbara is so famous, a group of young and bouncy dudebrahs set up camp for about four nights running. They came seriously equipped. 

Foldable lawn chairs no doubt designed by the same German engineers responsible for all the lunar-style baby buggies squeezing bicycle riders off State Street. A queen-sized inflatable mattress. The setup had all the look and feel of a tailgate party, except there was no football game and no barbecue grill. They were friendly and congenial and bugged me greatly for it.

The well-endowed group gave the long-haulers seeking refuge across the street on the art museum bench a bad reputation, as if being homeless and mentally ill was some rebellious phase one chose to go through.

Rebutting all their raucous good cheer was an angry argument a red-faced man with a sweat-soaked backpack was having with himself. I couldn’t make out what the point of contention was, but loud f-bombs were hurled throughout the conversation. Each one exploded on impact. I never realized domestic violence was something you could inflict on yourself.

I mention all this because I got on a Zoom meeting hosted this Monday by all the usual suspects working to improve mental health care in Santa Barbara County. Over the years, I have attended many such meetings — usually in person — and marveled at the lichen-like tenacity of these advocates. Typically, they’d hone in on some obscure but promising small pilot program in need of saving — with impenetrable acronyms like AOT or CIT — and make life hell for the board of supervisors until they cried uncle — and found the money.

This year, they announced, they’re going big. CinemaScope big. It’s about time. Just ask the red faced f-bomber still screaming at himself. 

Santa Barbara, they declared, needs to take a page from the San Antonio model in Bexar (pronounced “Bear”) County, Texas, launched 11 years ago by a two-time bear wrestler named Leon Evans and a retired Vaquero Oil executive. Together, they shoehorned about 184 stakeholders into working with and supporting a 22-acre campus. The operation offers to 1,700 people a year — homeless, mentally ill, and addicted — the whole rainbow of service.

The Bexar program costs $20 million a year to run, admittedly a whole lot of money. Guess what? $20 million also happens to be exactly what it will cost to annually run the new North County Jail — scheduled to come online sometime later this year.

That’s one striking coincidence, especially when you consider that the San Antonio program reportedly diverted 60,000 people into treatment who would otherwise have gone behind bars. 

In the meantime, Cottage Hospital reports that its ER is now getting about 100 patients a month who are so severely mentally ill that they pose an imminent threat to themselves or others. This March, the number was 101. Last March, it was 56. Guess what? Our Psychiatric Health Facility is licensed to handle no more than 16. You do the math. 

Little wonder the amount of time these patients — dubbed 5150s — spend in the ER waiting to find placement has doubled. What does that actually mean? It means this March, it took Cottage — on average — 28.6 hours to figure out what to do with these patients. Last March, by contrast, it took 15.6 hours. 

Houston, we have a problem. And the solution is hiding in plain sight right there in San Antonio.

It turns out that even the troglodyte, reactionary cave dwellers down in Orange County have cottoned on to this reality. According to the mental health advocates on that Monday Zoom meeting, the OC has raised $40 million to replicate the San Antonio model. Of that, we were told, $17 million came from the county government, the rest coming from rich people, municipal governments, and other interested parties. 

In Santa Barbara — where we have more billionaires per square inch, more Teslas per road mile, and more nonprofits per capita than any place in all 50 states — we’re all interested parties.

Maybe it’s time to go big. 

Or we can continue climbing the walls.


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