The discussion was quick and the vote decisive, with any public pushback coming in the form of emails sent to the Santa Barbara City Council before Tuesday’s meeting.
“There are plenty of people out there who had lots of advice for us, very little of it legal,” said Councilmember Michael Jordan before he and his six colleagues unanimously approved a $1.6 million, 120-day pilot program to temporarily relocate approximately 50 homeless individuals living in what are deemed six “fire-prone encampments” to upper State Street’s Rose Garden Inn, where they will receive a long list of services to steer them toward more permanent housing.
“All of them complaining, none of them offering an alternative to this choice,” continued Jordan of the naysayers, “and many, many of them suggesting we just just pick people up and take them to Camp Roberts or somewhere else against their will.” While the Santa Barbara encampments will be cleared out and cleaned up per a public safety emergency order, he explained, it will be the choice of the former occupants whether to move to the motel or not.
The experimental initiative ― which may be extended in some form if it proves successful ― comes after a spate of 18 fires in May that ignited in densely vegetated homeless encampments along Highway 101 and the Union Pacific railroad tracks. In the midst of those incidents was the Loma Fire, which was reportedly intentionally set by a homeless person high on methamphetamine, and which set off a wave of fear and panic among Santa Barbara residents that a similar blaze in hot and windy weather could level the city.
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon countered criticism that the motel relocation plan is too expensive ― $266 per person per night. “The tone is that we’re offering a day spa,” she said. “But it’s the wrap-around services that cost additional money, and those are what will make an actual, impactful difference in transforming people’s lives.” Moreover, Sneddon said, the project is not a one-off lark but instead dovetails into the city’s long-term strategy to address homelessness.
Brad Fieldhouse, the CEO of CityNet, a statewide agency and Santa Barbara’s latest nonprofit partner in tackling its long running homeless problem, explained the $1.6 million will buy not only 24-hour security at the site and meals and laundry but also ― and more importantly ― mental-health counseling, substance-abuse services, and case managers to help guests organize their documents and records, such as driver licenses, Social Security cards, and Medicare applications — all of which is meant to transition individuals to more permanent housing options.
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CityNet has used this motel “bridge” model 17 times throughout California “with great success,” Fieldhouse said. “We know what best practices are, and this is one of them.” The volunteer move from the encampments to the 36 rooms of the Rose Garden Inn will be “a really good option that a lot of people will take advantage of,” he predicted. CityNet staff will help individuals downsize and store their belongings at the property, and they’ll be required to abide by a strict code of conduct during their stay.
For instance, Fieldhouse said, guests will not be allowed in each other’s rooms, and no outsiders ― except for credentialed volunteers and service providers ― will be permitted at the site. Picnic tables in common areas will encourage interaction, he said, and staff will be consistently “gracious but firm” in moving people toward housing. Mayor Cathy Murillo said she’s personally witnessed CityNet representatives delivering a “tough love type of kindness” to people on the streets and going the extra mile to get them the type of help they need.
In response to neighborhood safety concerns, Councilmember Eric Friedman, who lives in the area, said he was reassured by Police Chief Barney Melekian’s full endorsement of the plan. The Rose Garden Inn, both pointed out, is actually already on occasion used as transitional housing for homeless individuals. But the current lack of on-site security has created issues and calls for police service. With CityNet present, Melekian said, he’s optimistic the motel could very well become “less of a burden than it is right now.”
Over the next 120 days, Melekian assured the council, his department would be monitoring crime rates in the area and taking action if they notice any spikes. “If the situation calls for beefed up patrols, we will do that,” he said.
If there was any hesitancy from the council, it was a concern that the pilot program called for immediately housing only 50 of the 300 estimated individuals living on Santa Barbara’s streets or in camps. Any and all of the region’s encampments could be considered “fire-prone,” Sneddon argued, so why limit their efforts to only the six chosen locations? (Those are slopes and wooded areas along the on- and off-ramps at Castillo, Garden, Milpas, and Carillo streets, and a stretch of railroad tracks beginning at Los Patos Way.)
“This is our starting point,” Murillo responded. “We need to show the community this works, then we can talk about other locations.” The $1.6 million in funding, the council agreed, would come from a combination of state grants and Measure C income.
Ben Romo, one of the meeting’s few public speakers, said he lives just a few blocks from the motel and thought the plan was “fantastic.” However, he said, he couldn’t help but think that the only reason the council was compelled to take such quick and aggressive action was because the Loma Fire shoved the issue, sometimes easily ignored, in their faces.
“It was a crisis, and I don’t mean to diminish it,” Romo said. “I just wish the crisis of homelessness that tragically impacts the lives of so many of our most vulnerable neighbors prompted the same level of angst, interest, responsiveness, and investment. Why does this daily human tragedy not prompt us to take the same commendable and drastic measures?”