In the 40 years that I have resided in Santa Barbara the issue of excessive vagrancy has endured, unrelenting and unresolved. It is not only as vexing a problem today as it was in 1972, but it has grown worse. All the attempted solutions — the new shelters, the community generosity, the multitude of tax- and charity-supported agencies and institutions — have not abated the problem.
Neither Santa Barbara nor the nation will ever eradicate homelessness. President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty was as hopelessly idealistic as President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs. Such crusades are doomed to fail because they cannot overcome human nature and the ultimate realities of economics. Yet, such crusades continue with all the unintended negative consequences that wreak collateral damage on society.
Santa Barbara, along with so many other idyllic West Coast communities, is being overrun by hordes of invading indigents attracted by the climate, the squishy liberality that tolerates their presence, and the generous support structure dedicated to providing for them.
The humanitarian sentiments of these communities have backfired on them. Their parks have become encampments for flocks of slumbering inebriates; their libraries and public benches, lounges for foul-smelling tatterdemalions; their shrubbery, open latrines; and their downtown streets, gauntlets of panhandlers. The collateral damage from unconditional charity and tolerance is suffered by everyone who wants to simply live in quiet, sanitary, unharassed, enjoyment of their community, and especially by anyone who owns a brick-and-mortar business dependent on customer traffic.
A man who owns such a business on Milpas Street told me that each morning, before customers arrive, he must roust out a roost of vagrants from his property, and hose down the area to deodorize as best he can the acrid smell of human waste. He told me of his embarrassment whenever customers notice the lingering stench and the vagrants loitering nearby, sometimes openly urinating. He was nearly in tears recounting his frustration with city officials and police who essentially shrug and do nothing.
Recently, a local advocate for the homeless said that, “what happens to one sector of our community affects what happens to everyone else.” Indeed it does. Just ask the guy who owns that shop on Milpas Street, or anyone trying to go about their business in and around the infestation of indigents in this town.
So, how does a community balance its humanitarianism with its own comfort? First, understand that no community, especially those as attractive as Santa Barbara, can ever accommodate all the homeless who will want to come there. Build another shelter and it will be filled while more homeless wait in line. Feed a hundred homeless and there will be another hungry hundred arriving. Unless Santa Barbara or any community is prepared to feed and shelter all the estimated 600,000 homeless in this nation, it has to establish reasonable limits on its charity and tolerance.
You don’t do that by implicit invitation to the greater homeless population. There are forces within Santa Barbara that have effectively created a homeless industry here that measures its success not by eliminating homelessness, which will never be done, but by how many people need its services. Rather than ease the problem, this industry exacerbates it by attracting the homeless here. This does, however, ensure steady employment for those in the industry.
The other forces implicitly sending out invitations to the homeless are the church groups that believe it is their duty to aid all comers. Nice folks these, but unless they can miraculously feed multitudes with two fish and a couple loaves of bread their charity is not boundless. They are not solving the problem here; rather they are perpetuating it — as is anyone who gives money to panhandlers.
What is reasonable for any community is to take care of its own, and not import indigents to take care of. I would define “its own” as folks who have been housed, self-sufficient, residents of the community for at least a year, and who have, through no fault of their own, fallen on hard times and need help getting on their feet.
There are ordinances that a city can pass to discourage the influx of indigents. The City of Arcata, on California’s North Coast, has passed a number of these ordinances and has hired special police officers dedicated to enforcing them. Arcata is gradually reclaiming its community from the homeless. Santa Barbara needs to face reality and do the same.