E PLURIBUS WHAT? By the time Tuesday afternoon rolled into Tuesday night, Santa Barbara City Councilmember Mike Jordan had become the dog chasing its tail. He was looking for ankles to bite and cages to rattle. Even on a chirpy day, Jordan can be a coarse-grain-sandpaper type of guy. But after listening to what seemed like five hours of reports detailing how City Hall spent $5.6 million on homelessness-related services last year, Jordan was betraying signs of existential leakage. Commenting on the statistically engorged brain vomit just inflicted on the council, Jordan threw up his hands. “If you’re coming away from this with a grasp on it,” he groused, “you’re doing better than me.”
The reports showed real progress was being made. An abundance of numbers was included to back it up. But Jordan — a recent convert to the cause — found himself struggling mightily with doubt. One presenter had described the conversion of the Rose Garden Inn into a homeless motel as “transformational.” Not once, in fact, but twice. But $2.3 million later, only 12 of the 63 Rose Garden guests served got into housing; 47, famously, were released back to the streets.
Jordan and Councilmember Eric Friedman not only hatched the Rose Garden plan but also rammed it through as an emergency response needed to stop people in homeless encampments from burning down the town. Measured strictly in terms of number of people housed, that comes to nearly $200,000 per person. Flashing a grimace that was meant to be a grin, Jordan expressed his deep and abiding ambivalence. He was struggling, he said, with whether the glass was half empty or half full. Friedman opined there was a hole at the bottom of the glass.
Jordan, admittedly, is a Johnny-come-lately to the struggle here. But I’ve been impressed that a self-described “grumpy, old white guy” would throw himself with such heedless abandon into the fray, blending his characteristic impatience and exasperation with enthusiasm, pragmatism, and compassion.
The issue of homelessness has been bedeviling city councils here since the late 1950s, when a Christian socialist business tycoon — who owned a foot-powder company whose product allegedly cooled one’s burning feet — proposed building a permanent concrete shower and bath house for the old coots still living in “Hobo Jungle” shacks where the zoo presently stands. Joining him in this effort was a city cop named Noah “Stormy” Cloud who worked closely with the local juvenile delinquents. At a council meeting, one councilmember challenged Cloud, wondering whether such a project wouldn’t draw outsiders to Santa Barbara. Cloud answered these people were very much Santa Barbarans.
Sixty years later and the terms of the debate have changed not one syllable.
Officer Cloud would be named person of the year by the Junior Chamber of Commerce and then quickly leave town. The foot powder magnate would be hit by a car while crossing the street and never get up. Not long after, the zoo would be built.
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But we live in more dire times. Back then, there were maybe 60 shacks down in the jungle. Once a year, the city’s mayor, Jack Rickard, would officially meet with the mayor of the Hobo Jungle. Today, Santa Barbara’s homeless population is now counted in hundreds and thousands. A new variant of methamphetamine — easier to produce, much cheaper, and much more dangerous — is now searing the neurotransmitters of its users, inducing a more lasting and violent psychosis among its users. Where do they all come from? Bad homes? Bad chemicals? Bad decisions? Bad luck? Undoubtedly. In the past 30 years, the greased pole of life has only gotten steeper and greasier. Once upon a time, your home was your castle. Now, for many, it’s their cars. These people should not be regarded as the worm in the apple; they should be seen instead as the canary in the coal mine. To the extent we erase them from the picture postcards of what Santa Barbara ought to look like, we do so at our peril.
Still, we have to do something. Councilmembers Jordan and Kristen Sneddon described the three recent deaths of homeless women on the streets as a “humanitarian crisis.” But measuring success can be nigh-impossible. Emily Koval, majordomo with CityNet, the nonprofit City Hall paid $4 million to wage an aggro outreach campaign with homeless people, said it took 13 months to get just one person from the streets and into housing. This entailed no fewer than 168 interactions and 94 hours of haranguing, case managing, pleading, cajoling, and opening doors. In this case, the client had been on the street 16 years, was checking himself into the ER six times a month, and had amassed 951 contacts with law enforcement over a five-year period. Since CityNet got on the scene, the council was told, his ER visits have dropped 83 percent. His number of contacts with the cops is down to two.
City Hall doesn’t have a mental-health department. It doesn’t have a social services department. It doesn’t have a sustainable funding stream to pay for such services. But it does have the largest percentage of homeless people living within its jurisdictions. To that end, councilmembers Jordan, Friedman, and Sneddon appointed themselves to an ad hoc committee to look into possibly passing a sales tax or bed tax increase to help create a steady, reliable funding stream that can be used to leverage even more revenues. They will also scream, shout, and otherwise demand more mental-health beds from the County of Santa Barbara, which does, in fact, have a mental-health department. They will also scream, shout, and otherwise insert themselves into the cash flow controlled by the county supervisors, not to mention more of the same regarding the creation of a South County “Solutions Court” for homeless people on the wrong side of the law with addiction problems.
When despair is measured in miles and salvation in centimeters, there’s only one thing to do. Just keep walking.