Downtown Macy’s having succumbed to what’s now billed as “the retail apocalypse,” I was recently forced to brave the outer limits of La Cumbre Plaza to buy myself a new pair of pants. I was shocked. I must have got there right after the aliens abducted everyone. The only thing missing were the tumbleweeds bouncing down the main paseo. It was pristine. It was white. There was an outdoor chess set — festively inviting — with chess pieces three feet tall. There was no one to play. If George (Dawn of the Dead) Romero were making another shopping mall horror movie, La Cumbre would be reserved for zombies with good skin complexion. But La Cumbre, it turned out, was too dead even for zombies.
By that, I mean there wasn’t a single homeless person within eyeshot. Not a single person asked me to please subsidize his less-than-lavish lifestyle. Or suggested, as has happened on occasion, that I perform unnatural sex acts upon the Pope. There were no shopping carts. No street musicians. No guys in wheelchairs who maybe can actually walk. No bus stop screamers, no doorway sleepers, no stringy-haired goths toting huge backpacks, selling stuff on the sidewalk. And no pit bulls that anyone could get vaguely uneasy about. I mention this because the Great Noise Machine is ramping up yet again, blaming street people for the demise of retail shopping throughout downtown Santa Barbara and the attendant collapse of western civilization.
With 47 vacancies — and that doesn’t even include Macy’s, which is the equivalent of about 20 — it’s clear there are some very real problems. Santa Barbara now has more empty storefronts than any time since the recession of 1991. But the economy is booming, not bombing. So what gives? The homeless — or whatever you want to call them — have been a constant presence on State Street for the past 30 years. They are not the cause of this problem. They are only the excuse. “Fixing” them is not the solution. They’re only the dog you can kick. When I left La Cumbre, I had been effectively chased out of Macy’s not by any homeless people, but by the invasive android rock and synthetic voice-machine vocals that presumably function as sonic shopping lubricant. Give me panhandlers any day.
State Street, undeniably, has issues. High rents would be a big one. Maybe we can talk about commercial rent control just for a change. But greedy landlords, just like the homeless, have always been a fixture of the street. What’s different, however, are internet sales. Amazon.com has dropped a retail bomb on brick-and-mortar shopping centers from coast to coast. Nationally, the number of unemployed shopping clerks now exceeds the number of unemployed coal miners. The rate at which internet sales is increasing has accelerated from $30 billion a year to $40 billion. Economists call that jump “the tipping point.” The same economists describe the changes being wrought as “creative destruction.” I hate economists.
Over the years, City Hall invested about $400 million in creating State Street, which is now having its face eaten by the so-called Funk Zone, which, by contrast, was allowed to kind of just happen. In any case, the city’s retail center of gravity is sliding, inexorably, south. In the meantime, downtown has been engulfed by an explosion of bars: wine bars, tapas bars, nail bars, face bars, dry bars, tiki bars, noodle bars, oyster bars, a piano bar, and even something called a barre bar. There remains, however, a notable shortage of dive bars. Beyond that, we’re also witnessing a mystifying proliferation of storefront gyms, one of the last bastions of the genuinely idiosyncratic. But aside from all the sweat and Lycra, these places provide essential space for the growing legion of vehicle dwellers to shave, shower, and do all the other things necessary to pass as a normal human being.
With a mayoral and city council race upon us, we can expect a loud hue and cry for more police to keep the riffraff at bay. While I sympathize — businesses are struggling — cops are also extremely expensive. They’re also not the right tool for the job. If the county jail is Santa Barbara’s number one repository for the chronically mentally ill, State Street is the second. If part of State Street’s problem involves the service-resistant mentally ill, does it really make sense for the county supervisors to cut the county’s brand-new Laura’s Law program — as they’ve been asked to do — that targets these very people for treatment? Maybe someone from City Hall and the Downtown Organization should have spoken in defense of Laura’s Law at the county board of supervisors meeting this week. If they did, I must have blinked.
(Since publication, we were notified that while no one from the Downtown Organization testified at the supervisors meeting, the Downtown Organization, in fact, submitted an email to the county supervisors emphatically urging them to maintain funding for the Laura’s Law program.)
Did you know Santa Barbara County is the only county in all of California in which law enforcement officers cannot place people experiencing acute psychiatric distress — posing an imminent threat to themselves or others — in a 72-hour hold? Why? Because there’s no place to put them.
Judges, exasperated by the county’s lack of treatment options, have taken matters into their own hands. They increasingly are ordering mentally ill defendants — deemed not competent to stand trial — into the Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF) rather than the county jail. There’s been a 300 percent increase of such placements since 2013. As Supervisor Das Williams noted, you now have to commit a crime to get into the PHF.
In addition, judges are increasingly issuing orders that mentally ill patients be placed in long-term psychiatric conservatorships and sent to out-of-county facilities. Why out of county? Because none exist in Santa Barbara. In 2012, we spent $734,000 for such hospitalizations. Last year, it was $4.1 million.
As part of the same cost-cutting exercise that put Laura’s Law on the chopping block, mental health officials suggested cutting the number of out-of-county conservatorship beds it pays for from 47 a night to 28.
You think it’s hard buying a pair of pants downtown now? You ain’t seen nothing yet.