Santa Barbara's Ordinance Committee voted to include the Milpas area in the city's "sit-lie" ordinance, which bans sitting or lying on the sidewalk in certain areas during specific times. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

People lying on Milpas Street sidewalks have gotten to be a severe problem, said several residents on Tuesday during a meeting of the City of Santa Barbara’s Ordinance Committee, whose three members unanimously agreed to include Milpas in the city’s “sit-lie” rule.

The question of adding Milpas Street, between Carpinteria and Canon Perdido streets, to the city’s existing “sit-lie” ordinance will next go to the City Council for consideration. The current ordinance addresses parts of State Street and forbids individuals from sitting or lying down on certain sidewalks during set hours of the day, excluding those with disabilities, people in medical emergencies, and spectators of events such as parades. Though the ordinance does not directly address homeless people, the concerns that arose Tuesday mainly focused on Santa Barbara’s homeless population.

“In practice the sit-lie ordinance is enforced with a very light hand,” said City Attorney Ariel Calonne, and is mostly imposed on those who have been previously detained and refuse to leave the sidewalk. Law enforcement must provide a warning before giving a citation.

Santa Barbara has regulated sitting and lying down on the first 13 blocks of State Street since 1997. The law originally was in place between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., until 2015 when it was extended to 2 a.m. to adjust to the city’s nightlife scene. In 2018, the City Council added the 0 to 100 block of East Haley Street to the ordinance, to address ongoing sidewalk obstruction in the area. The existing ordinance still applies from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. only.

The proposed ordinance would add a substantial portion of the city’s vibrant Milpas Street corridor, where some business owners and residents say that addressing the problem is long overdue.

Milpas Street is a busy commercial area, where sidewalk obstructions create danger for several reasons, according to Calonne. Aside from sitting and lying down, groups congregating on the sidewalks can lead to nuisance and criminal behavior.

A City Attorney office investigator who surveyed the area and took aerial photographs found that the narrowest point of the west sidewalk is only two feet by 10 inches wide. The area had permanent structures, like public trash bins and news boxes, that further crowded the sidewalks. Additional human obstructions, especially in narrow areas, can lead pedestrians to step into the road, where car traffic is heavy.

A Milpas business owner said that the human obstructions are a deterrent for businesses in the area, and that she has had to put herself in danger by stepping onto the roadway to avoid these individuals several times.

One public commenter raised concern that this ordinance will be used to target people experiencing homelessness and mental-health issues, addressing citywide homelessness in a “backward” way. The speaker believed that the change will only push struggling individuals further out of sight and does not present a long-term solution to the problem.

Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez expressed a similar concern: “I will cautiously second the motion,” he said in sending the ordinance to the City Council, and hoped that further review can ensure that the ordinance will benefit as many parties — including homeless individuals — as possible.

“It is not a happy ordinance to move forward, but a necessary one,” said Councilmember Kristen Sneddon, commenting that addressing the root causes of homelessness has been a high priority for City Council.

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