This past Saturday at a meeting of SEAT at the Table, a new homeless advocacy group in Santa Barbara, a member called for the creation of a “Safe Sleeping Program.”
The idea is both innovative and provocative, and addresses the massive criminalization of homelessness that has occurred in Santa Barbara during the past few years.
As is well known, the Common Ground volunteers surveyed 1,056 people on the streets of Santa Barbara County’s South Coast in March 2011, briefly interviewing these people and filling out for them the Vulnerability Index — a brief but comprehensive assessment of physical and mental well-being. Many homeless advocates estimate that three times that number are homeless each year in our area.
Recently, Trinity Episcopal Church, the big, beautiful stone church on the corner of State and Micheltorena streets, decided to stop being a “safe haven” for the poor and frail people who took refuge on their doorsteps and in their yard. For a number of months this congregation, led by social justice advocate the Rev. Mark Asman, graciously welcomed these weary strangers to their doors each night, allowing all sorts of nomads to curl up under their covered walkway. Soon there will be nowhere for these folks to go without facing the harassment of local law enforcement officers.
The issue of nowhere to go has already become a huge problem. Last fall on several nights, we had no available shelter beds for a woman anywhere in town. Moreover, social justice advocates fret about the lack of “respite beds” (that is, beds for poor people being released from Cottage Hospital), and the lack of beds for those with mental health challenges (including the “dually diagnosed”).
A recent Santa Barbara County Grand Jury report severely criticized the services of our local mental health agencies, stating that the County Jail had become the de facto central mental health institution of our community. A news conference by Families Act! earlier this week drew attention to our “revolving door,” in which mentally ill people cycle in and out of the County Jail without getting the rehabilitation services they desperately need.
The poor, sick, the infirm, the mentally ill are wandering our streets at night seeking refuge in doorways. Last week I spoke to a man who got three tickets in one night.
The idea of a “Safe Sleeping Program” would be modeled after the Safe Parking Program, which is currently run by New Beginnings Counseling Center. People would need to sign up in advance, alcohol and drugs would not be permitted on site, and people would only be allowed to sleep at the site (perhaps arrive at 7 p.m. and leave by 7 a.m.). Ideally, the site would be indoors.
All human beings deserve to sleep indoors if they want to in a safe and secure environment. It could be like a warming center that is open 365 days a year.
If no spot can be found indoors, a suitable outdoor spot must be found. Porta-potties would be brought in and professionals would monitor the sites — in the same way that the Safe Parking spaces are monitored. Moreover, the clients would be offered various services, including outreach, job club, counseling groups and other supportive services.
I do not know what types of sites we could find — a parking lot, an open field, a gymnasium, etc. We desperately need to find a place. Four years ago, we did not have a warming center and we made that happen. I know we can make this happen, too. It is the right thing to do.
With the closing of the Freedom Warming Centers and the closing of the winter beds at Casa Esperanza, an estimated 200 beds have been taken away from the most frail and destitute people of our community — people who are now being ticketed for sleeping outside.
This has to stop! The criminalization of poverty is an injustice.
SEAT at the Table, the group that came up with this idea, is a coalition of homeless and formerly homeless people who hope to shape public policies that address the systemic causes of poverty and homelessness. They envision grassroots, consumer-driven public institutions serving the true needs of their constituents.