Jeff Shaffer has spent the better part of the last 20 years pushing boulders uphill. Sometimes, they’ve chased him back down again.
In various organizational and spiritual incarnations, Shaffer has emerged as the closest thing to a homeless whisperer that the South Coast has. It’s not nearly enough to find housing for those without homes, he’s discovered. Even more care must be taken to ensure that those used to sleeping on the streets can adjust to sleeping between sheets. It’s a formidable task. Not surprisingly, he’s learned to calibrate his enthusiasm with care and precision.
Yet now — as Santa Barbara’s delicate ecosystem of tolerance where the homeless are concerned is experiencing yet another quantum shift — Shaffer is uncharacteristically optimistic. “The universe is on our side,” he said at the tail end of a short interview this Friday. A former class clown, Shaffer had once harbored ambitions of becoming a professional comedy writer. Even he had to laugh at how improbable that statement sounded.
As is always the case when the issue is homelessness, the picture is very complicated and very contradictory. This week, Governor Gavin Newsom lifted the state’s emergency restrictions on COVID. This, in turn, freed up local governments to take whatever steps they deemed desirable or necessary to deal with the proliferation of homeless encampments — both in plain sight or off the beaten path. During the prior 18 months, their hands had been tied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued strong recommendations that homeless camps were to be left alone because of public health considerations.
Santa Barbara’s City Hall responded to the shift by launching a muted crackdown on homeless encampments, particularly those located in what are deemed fire prone areas. Last Friday, city police notified the growing number of tent dwellers that have been occupying Alameda Park that they needed to pull up stakes and move elsewhere. Exactly where they might go, not even Shaffer pretended to have a clue.
More than that, this week saw the launch of a joint enforcement action by the Santa Barbara Police Department, the city’s Environmental Services Division, Amtrak police, and Union Pacific police, who targeted encampments along the railroad tracks running from Castillo Street to Channel Drive. When they were done, 15 citations were issued — mostly for trespassing but a few for narcotics violations as well.
According to a press statement issued by the Police Department, all the urban campers the officers encountered “complied with the Officers and packed up their belongings and left.” In addition, the statement read, “Backhoes were used to collect nearly 5,500 pounds of remaining trash and debris.” Multiple trailers were required to haul it all away.
Far more dramatic, this coming Tuesday the City Council will likely approve plans to lease for the next four months all 32 rooms of the Rose Garden Inn on upper State Street to provide emergency lodging, food, transportation, and services for as many as 50 people now living on the streets. Driving this emergency action — which is budgeted to cost City Hall between $1.6 million to $2 million — is a well-founded fire phobia as Santa Barbara’s drought-desiccated brush is reportedly two months ahead of schedule when it comes to being parched and dried out.
Sparking the action was the Loma Fire six weeks ago that might have taken out much of the Mesa but for the miraculous and instantaneous intervention by no less than four fire agencies who managed to get the upper hand on a blaze fueled by 55 mile an hour winds. That fire, it should be noted, did not start at a homeless encampment. It was an arson fire, reportedly set by a homeless person on methamphetamine at the time. But in the month of May, city firefighters report, 18 smaller fires originated in homeless encampments.
The Rose Garden Inn, according to persistent but officially unconfirmed reports, enjoys a reputation as a flea bag. Yelp reviews have been scathing in the extreme and include references to dirty soap bars in the bathroom, lukewarm water in the showers, chipped paint, no towels, and loud guests dumpster diving for their dinners. Each such review is typically followed by an apology by the motel management that the accommodations did not meet guests’ expectations and that they will endeavor to do better. The good news is that the room rates are cheap by Santa Barbara standards, about $109 a night.
All that, it would seem, makes this proposed site an ideal location, however perversely. For starters, neighbors will experience no jarring change of clientele. If anything, it will be better managed. CityNet, which is securing the master lease with city funds, will spend $181,000 on “24/7 guard coverage,” not to mention a shuttle driver to transport guests to and fro.
The actual cost for the motel rooms — accompanied by computer stations, a bed bug hot box, chairs, and picnic tables — is budgeted at $677,000. Food and laundry is another $282,000. As for management, that’s budgeted at $455,000. That includes case management and a host of “wrap-around services” said to include mental health counseling, substance abuse counseling, and the help needed to prepare the guests’ papers and documents, like driver licenses, Social Security cards, and Medicare records.
All that, the council has been told, is necessary to help get people who’ve grown used to living a feral lifestyle equipped to make the leap to permanent or transitional housing. None of that, however, is cheap. With all these bells and whistles, the nightly cost per guest will jump from $109 to $266. But compared to the political blowback that Plan B would engender — creating a tent city at the commuter parking lot by Castillo and Carrillo streets ― it’s cheap. More than that, it’s doable.
Based on City Hall’s predictions, the Rose Garden Inn meets the estimated needs. According to Fire Marshal Joe Poire, there are roughly 50 individuals now living in the most fire-prone camps. Six of these camps have already been targeted for “abatement,” a bureaucratically gentler term than eradication and elimination.
Joe Doherty, a civil rights attorney with the People’s Justice Project, worries about the number of unanswered questions that remain. How will people living in the urban brush be notified that they are dwelling in “fire prone” encampments, he asked? How will they learn where they can and cannot live? Are there maps? What rules must they abide by? Who will track who gets evicted and for what reasons? Will residents at the motel be free to come and go? If not, will they be under the effective equivalent of house arrest? And what happens to the tents, sleeping bags, and other personal belongings of the guests?
All this is happening under the unspoken rules governing how Santa Barbara’s housed populations co-exist with its unhoused. With the lifting of the pandemic’s emergency restrictions, more people are coming downtown. More people are interacting with the homeless. More homeless are interacting with them. A 60-year-old homeless man and a long-term veteran of Santa Barbara’s streets recently found himself rousted from a public sleeping spot he’d come to enjoy during the pandemic. When told he had to go, he got upset and pulled out a pair of scissors. Cops got called. No one got hurt, but it took a while for things to settle down.
As the parks are cleared and the encampments too, it’s doubtful the 50 motel rooms will be enough to accommodate those dispersed. The good news, according to Jeff Shaffer is that thanks to a dramatic influx of federal and state funds for homeless housing assistance, there will be far more housing vouchers available for those making the transition from the streets.
For the past 10 years, Shaffer and his organization have run what’s now called a “neighborhood navigation center” every Thursday at Alameda Park that provides a wide range of services — food, medical care, pet care, portable showers, and the reliable expectation of companionship under safe conditions. During COVID, those Thursday evening gatherings still took place, but under greater circumscribed conditions. People stood in line for food; they didn’t eat together. Social distancing was observed. This past Thursday — one day before the police cleared the tents out of the park — Shaffer expressed relief people could eat together for the first time. “We got to sit down for an actual meal,” he exclaimed. Forty-four guests, he said, showed up; 25 volunteers did too.
Shaffer is hoping to establish such centers throughout the entire city so that no one neighborhood has reason to feel it’s absorbing the brunt of what’s clearly a national and statewide problem. At such centers, he contends, trust can be established between those who mean well and those who have learned the hard way that meaning well is not enough. It is through such interactions, repeated week after week, that people on the street learn to take the first step to something different, he said.
Shaffer is one of the cofounders of SBACT, a relatively recent organizational acronym to emerge in Santa Barbara’s age-old struggle with homelessness, and SBACT (S.B. Alliance for Community Transformation) has emerged as a de facto extension of City Hall, one of the organization’s key financial benefactors. Two weeks ago, the council voted to give SBACT $150,000 to start a new neighborhood navigation center at the parking lot by Castillo and Carrillo. That will fund an ongoing operation one day a week for three hours a day.
Given how vociferously residents living near that commuter lot have recoiled against previous efforts to create a “tiny home” homeless village there, Shaffer knows he’s treading on thin ice. Before launching any new program on the site, he stressed, he’d be meeting with the neighbors to hear their concerns and presumably to address them as well.
As Santa Barbara returns to so-called “normal,” the downtown library will reopen to the public. When that happens, many people who have long lived out-of-doors will seek refuge in the library’s stacks, as they have done before. In anticipation of the friction that will likely ensue, the City Council voted to spend $100,000 to hire a social worker to address the needs of the homeless bibliophiles eager to reoccupy their old digs.
In the meantime, Shaffer noted, a private nonprofit known as Dignity Moves — made up of members who became CEOs of their respective business operations by the time they turned 40 — is moving ahead with plans to open a new homeless village of 30 to 35 tiny homes on government-owned property located on Garden Street.
In this case, Shaffer said, the tiny homes are being designed by a well-known architect and will fit into Santa Barbara’s red-tiled architectural tradition. More to the point, he added, they will provide transitional housing for people getting off the street for as long as three years. Shaffer said the new units might be operational sometime this fall, maybe as soon as October.
As all this happens, the council — bombarded by business leaders complaining about out-of-control homeless behavior ― has also been moving in the other direction. Two weeks ago, for example, the council passed an ordinance prohibiting anyone from sitting or lying on certain blocks of Milpas Street. Although the law applies to all residents, it’s clearly aimed at the homeless. This measure mirrors a similar ordinance the council passed to restrict such behavior on State Street. Or the one the council passed to rein in the use of shopping carts.
For Shaffer, it’s been a long-distance sprint with no real finish line. But at the moment, there’s more wind at his back than in his face. “The universe,” he chuckled again, “is on our side.”