It’s an ambitious and risky plan, but if executed correctly, it could be a game changer for how Santa Barbara helps its homeless residents get back on their feet.
The City Council on Tuesday approved a $1.6 million, 120-day pilot program to relocate 50 or so homeless people living in six fire-prone encampments to the Rose Garden Inn on upper State Street, where case managers and service providers will steer them toward permanent housing.
Evictions of the encampments took place last week, and the four-month takeover of the motel starts today, July 5. Predictably, some of its neighbors objected to the plan by predicting a spike in crime and nuisance behavior. Most of those worries, however, seemed mollified by a hearty endorsement from the police chief, who noted the 24-hour security slated for the property and the impressive track record of the nonprofit organization ― CityNet ― spearheading the overall effort.
But how does Santa Barbara find itself embarking on such a new and controversial endeavor to address one of its longest-festering issues? The local genesis of the motel “bridge” model ― which CityNet has carried out with notable success in communities throughout California ― dates back to a significant change in policy at the city’s main homeless shelter.
“The city does not have a true shelter anymore,” said Councilmember Michael Jordan at last week’s meeting. “There’s no longer a place for walk-up use on a large scale.” Jordan was referring to Casa Esperanza on Cacique Street, which used to offer at least 100 no-strings-attached beds to people in need, but faced intense and ultimately unsurmountable community opposition to the unruly behavior that frequently took place in and around the property.
The site is now operated by a nonprofit called PATH, which still offers beds and services but with stricter conditions on clients, including mandatory sobriety. The Salvation Army and the Rescue Mission similarly provide places to stay but have their own rules and restrictions that block some people ― often those considered the most “service-resistant,” and who make frequent trips to jail or the emergency room ― from entering.
Jordan wasn’t knocking any of the three organizations. They do great, indispensable work. But their current programming leaves a gap in the safety net, not only for the homeless individuals themselves, but also for Santa Barbara as a whole. “It’s a contributing factor,” he said.
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And why are the sweeps of the encampments, which cropped up en masse during the pandemic, happening now? The fear of fire is one reason. The month of May saw 18 fires break out in camps often situated in woody areas. The clincher was the Loma Fire on TV Hill. Had the wind been blowing the opposite direction that night, the blaze could have wiped out much of the city. It didn’t start in an actual encampment but was allegedly set on purpose by a homeless person high on meth.
The second reason for the timing is Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent order lifting the state’s emergency COVID restrictions. The move freed up local governments to take whatever steps they considered necessary to address the proliferation of homeless encampments in their communities. During the previous 18 months, their hands were tied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said homeless camps ought to be left alone for public health reasons.
How well the Rose Garden Inn plan worked will be assessed at the end of the 120 days. Mayor Cathy Murillo made it clear that some form of the pilot program may be expanded and/or adapted to other properties, and that additional fire-prone sites above and beyond the original six could soon be targeted for enforcement.
In other news…
The City of Santa Barbara says it will cost more than $100,000 to replace three of its 50-year-old Eugenia trees along Paterna Road that were cut down without permission. Homeowner James Allen Carr and landscaper Enrique Calles Vasquez are named in a new felony complaint after the pair allegedly took out three trees on city property and one in Carr’s front setback last year. Should Carr and Vasquez lose the case, they face fines of up to $50,000 and possible jail time, as well as an order to replace the trees.
A coalition of community groups known as SUN, or Sustainable University Now, has accused UCSB of breaching a legally binding 2010 Long Range Development Plan in which the university pledged to cap its enrollment at 25,000 students through the year 2025, to build dormitories for the 5,000 students it planned on adding, and to construct 1,800 new units for its growing ranks of faculty and staff. Since then, UCSB has already exceeded its cap, built enough dorms to house only 1,500 new students, and provided a paltry 263 faculty units. That major shortfall, SUN says, “has exacerbated the already dire regional housing crisis, increasing the cost of housing and overcrowded living conditions throughout Santa Barbara County.”
The County Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices announced Thursday they are investigating alleged sexual abuse and misconduct by a former employee of Cate School, an exclusive 9th-12th-grade boarding school located in the foothills of Carpinteria. The alleged abuse occurred on school property in 2020 while the suspect was still employed there. Last week, detectives served search warrants at the campus to gather potential evidence, and they have contacted several victims and witnesses. But detectives also believe there may be additional survivors or witnesses who have not been identified. Anyone with information related to the investigation is asked to contact Detective Sergeant Mark Valencia at (805) 681-4150.