Councilmember Eric Friedman still has questions after six months of renting out the Rose Garden Inn to homeless people. How should success be defined? Would money be better spent by converting low-rent motels into permanent low-income rentals? And what’s the best way to deal with meth addicts on the streets? | Credit: Courtesy

On the last day of January, the 27 remaining residents of the Rose Garden Inn found themselves back out on the streets with no place to go. For six months, the Rose Garden — located next door to the Tee-Off in San Roque — provided emergency shelter for those rousted out of urban encampments that authorities deemed posed an immediate fire threat. Sixty three were served. Eleven of those found permanent housing. All got treatment they would not otherwise have gotten.

For many San Roque residents, the experience proved a rude awakening. Their councilmember, Eric Friedman, had been one of the two members of the City Council who pushed hardest to get the Rose Garden Inn opened in the first place. Over the six months, Friedman’s thoughts about the Rose Garden Inn evolved. Now, one month after the motel’s doors were closed, Friedman shares his perspective with Independent reporter and editor Nick Welsh via an email interview that was edited for length. 

Sixty-three people served for $3 million translates to $47,600 per person at the Rose Garden Inn, or about $395 a night, said Councilmember Eric Friedman. That’s a lot, he said, but 11 people got moved into permanent housing, 33 got “document ready” to move in as soon as units become available, and 63 service-resistant individuals got help who otherwise would not have. | Credit: Courtesy

Six months and $3 million later, what do you think the Rose Garden Inn project accomplished? Was the glass more than half empty or more than half full? 

The Rose Garden Inn project was a mixed bag that provides many valuable lessons learned. On the positive side, there was a reduction in the number of fires related to encampments, thousands of pounds of trash was cleaned up, and we were able to provide shelter and services to individuals living in the encampments, many of whom had been service-resistant. From January 1, 2021, to July 5, 2021, there were 27 vegetation fires in the six fire-prone areas. When the Rose started on July 5 until its closure at the end of January 2022, there were 18 vegetation fires in the same areas. In addition, more than 62,000 pounds of trash were collected from the six encampments. This is an astounding amount of debris that was building up in our city, with much of it near our creeks that would eventually have posed a threat to our beaches and ocean. 

On the flip side, there were impacts to the neighborhood that negatively affected residents and businesses. I received a number of calls related to vagrancy and nuisance crimes, and personally witnessed behavior on my own street that I had not previously observed. This included illicit drug use; aggressive behavior, including toward minors; and other issues. 

Overall, we gained valuable insight into what a program like this means. This is important as the State moves toward securing hotels for this type of project. We now have a better understanding of what to plan for and the amount of resources that we’ll need to ensure neighborhood safety. 

How did the Rose Garden Inn come to be available for this? 

Once the council gave direction to form a bridge housing project rather than use a parking lot for tents, city staff worked with our outreach team, including SBACT and City Net, to identify potential locations. This process resulted in the Rose Garden Inn as the location that was committed to the project and would not take other reservations during the duration of the program.

I know the city spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million to make this happen. Why couldn’t the costs have been borne by the state or the feds in one of their Operation Room Key programs? 

The city inquired if this project was eligible, but unfortunately, due to funding cycles and no location open to making the permanent transition to a housing project, no outside funding was identified. It is important to remember that this was an emergency action due to the Loma Fire. 

The Loma Alta fire was the freak-out trigger that made this happen? How many encampments were emptied out as a result of this effort? How many people are we talking about? 

The six major encampments ranged from the Los Patos Way southbound 101 off-ramp up to the Carrillo Southbound on-ramp. Approximately 70 people were contacted. 

If I have it right, 63 separate individuals stayed at the Rose; by the time it closed, I think 11 found permanent housing, 27 were released to the streets, and a whole bunch are what they call “document ready.” At first blush, these numbers don’t look that great. But we are told they’re actually very impressive because the individuals involved are among the more chronic of the unhoused and more service-resistant. It sounds like what City Net — which oversaw the project — got done in six months would have normally taken two to four years. Did I hear that right? 

I have the same information and data as you, with the addition that three clients exited to Salvation Army and 33 became document ready. This outcome demonstrates the complexity of the problem facing local governments as we try to respond to the growing impacts of chronic homelessness. The Rose delivered encouraging results in terms of getting 11 service-resistant individuals off the streets and a path for others to move to housing. Unfortunately, the $3 million cost will never be sustainable. I’m not a math major, but $3 million divided by 63 people served is about $47,600 per person. The city currently has a $3.7 million structural deficit starting next fiscal year, with additional pressures that could bring it closer to $5 million or more. In addition, the Rose project brings front and center one of the greatest challenges to success, securing housing in our rental market. 

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If you break down the amount of money spent and the number of room nights of shelter provided, what’s the per night cost?

The project was approximately 210 days with 36 rooms rented. This equates to around $395/night. The high cost included the wraparound services, 24/7 security, increased patrols to the surrounding neighborhood, and other costs. It was extremely resource intensive. 

This is your neighborhood. What were the changes you experienced as a resident? I believe that the police booked 13 people, issued 52 citations, and gave 78 warnings. Do those seem proportional to the realities you experienced? 

I definitely noticed an increase in impacts to the surrounding neighborhood. I personally observed drug use on my street, stopped someone from attempting to steal items from porches in my complex, and I received an increase in calls from constituents with similar experiences. It was very noticeable at first. Of note, it wasn’t the clients of the Rose, but rather others who came to the neighborhood. Some wanted to get into the program, others knew people who were there, and some were displaced due to the abatement of the encampments. 

When a mentally ill, meth-addicted homeless person made himself a human Molotov cocktail on a windy night last May, the steep Loma Alta hillsides quickly went up in flame. In response, councilmembers Eric Friedman and Michael Jordan demanded action. Six encampments were shut down, and the Rose Garden Inn was opened to handle the 70 people displaced. | Credit: S.B. County Fire / Mike Eliason

Knowing what you know now, how would you have done things differently?

At the time, we were stuck with a no-win dilemma. When the first council vote took place, there was great concern after the Loma Fire that another encampment fire could do severe damage, especially as we were entering the summer season, and the hot, dry, windy months of September and October. Also, there had recently been another fire along Montecito Street that caused property damage and if it had been windy could have had additional major impacts to West Beach. The fire threat and need to abate the trash from the encampments had to take place. Where I would have done things differently was when the second vote to extend the project came to council. Although I voted against the extension, looking back, I think more information on the impacts to the neighborhood as well as the cost relative to the results could have been given to the council and community. It may not have changed the outcome of the extension, but I don’t think the impacts to the neighborhood were fully understood. 

I understand longtime homeless advocates Jeff Shaffer and Barbara Andersen held regular weekly Zoom meetings with the neighbors. I understand you all took monthly walks with in the neighborhood residents. How helpful were these? Did you get new information? And if so, what did you do with the information you got? 

The weekly Regional Action Plans (RAP) are very helpful in terms of providing timely information to residents as well as a forum for residents to have a voice and give direct input to city staff and our outreach team. The walks through the neighborhood took place once a month with locations determined by feedback taken directly from neighbors on the problem locations. Some residents have been able to join on the walks, and their input to the city staff is extremely valuable. The RAP meetings result in a targeted response for outreach, law enforcement checks if necessary, and other safety measures. 

Increasingly, we are hearing that every neighborhood is going to need to do its part in responding to the homeless crisis. And increasingly, we’re hearing that the hotel/motel approach is the best solution. Typically, Santa Barbara has put most of its shelters over in the Eastside. How do you prepare people who have not had to deal with this reality that they’re going to need to shoulder more of the burden?

I think the Rose Garden Inn experience is a cautionary tale. There were benefits but with a number of costs. In my opinion, there needs to be a full community discussion on the definition of success. Once we identify success, how do we get there? Interestingly enough, back in October, when the discussion on the extension took place, I read a book called San Fransicko by Michael Shellenberger, which is a deep dive into the homeless policies of California and San Francisco in particular. 

It is a startling picture of good intentions gone terribly wrong. A number of people locally have now read it, and it is sparking an interesting debate and raising important questions. For example, before we go all in on hotels, shouldn’t we discuss whether the primary issue is housing or addiction? If so, what is the best way to treat addiction, in particular methamphetamine? When we start asking these types of questions, we ask others, such as, would a more beneficial use of hotels be to convert them to price-restricted apartments for our low-income workers and thereby prevent individuals and families from becoming homeless? Ensuring that we are asking tough questions is the first step to building trust that will avoid a community backlash of forcing policies into neighborhoods. 

In the wake of the COVID pandemic, encampments like this started popping up all over. With the opening of the Rose Garden Inn, San Roque residents got up close and personal with an issue more associated in the public imagination with downtown and the Eastside. | Credit: Max Abrams / Daily Nexus

As one of the two elected officials most responsible for springing this on your neighborhood, how much heat did you take?

First, I want to thank the residents of this area. When it came time to step up and support our entire city, they responded. They had concerns at the start but were cautiously open to it because they knew we had fire issues that affected our whole city. I am proud of my neighbors for considering the city as a whole. However, once the impacts became evident and the cost to the overall outcome became known, they agreed with the position I took. In fact, the conversations I had with area residents helped inform me when I voted against the extension. 

If you had it to do over again, would you have done this? 

Yes, for the simple reason that at the time, we were responding to an emergency. Based on the information provided to council at the time, we could not abate the encampments unless we had a place for people to go. Other viable options were not feasible. I would much rather take an action that didn’t work out as intended than be accused of failing to act. Again, at the time, my thought process was, if we took no action at all, a major fire could break out and cause loss of life and property. If that had happened, we would have failed the city. 

In the end, while there were challenges with the project, there were also important lessons learned. We also prevented a number of fires, disposed of more than 60,000 pounds of trash, and 11 people are no longer living on the streets with 33 more ready to go once housing becomes available. 

What’s going to happen at the Rose Garden Inn now?

It is back as a hotel open to the public at large. 

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