Four hours of venting and frustration made up the majority of Thursday’s Santa Barbara Planning Commission meeting, focused on the biannual review of homeless shelter Casa Esperanza’s permit conditions.
City staff decided last week that the shelter meets all of its conditions of approval after a voluminous complaint was filed by a community group documenting the shelter’s shortcomings.
One of the biggest complaints was the lack of an effective outlet for neighbors to lodge complaints.
When the shelter was first started, part of its conditions for approval was the formation of the Milpas Area Task Force, a forum that would resolve issues surrounding the shelter.
But that group has since become so gridlocked between interests from the shelter and those of the neighbors that it can’t even agree to adopt minutes of previous meetings.
Though the city deemed the shelter good, that didn’t stop dozens of people from packing the City Council chambers, with many frustrated at the homeless situation on Milpas Street, and others calling on the commissioners to renew their support to the shelter, which reaches out to thousands of people each year.
Commissioners expressed frustration as well, and had little recourse without being able to alter the conditions of the permit.
There are problems in the area, to be sure, and the city’s last-ditch effort is sending in a mediator to try to find common ground between representatives of the shelter and neighborhood groups.
Former Planning Commissioner John Jostes will begin mediating the issue, with Planning Commissioner Addison Thompson telling Jostes on Thursday that he had a “hell of an uphill battle” ahead, but that Thompson hopes that the group can find some common ground.
At the meeting’s beginning, police Capt. Dave Whitham acknowledges that crime had gone up in the area. Since 1999, “part one” crimes, which are more serious, have decreased citywide, but have increased 150 percent in the lower Milpas corridor, and 116 percent at the shelter.
“Part two” crimes, which are less serious and include offenses such as urinating in public, have gone up 174 percent in the lower Milpas corridor, and a whopping 950 percent at the shelter.
However, he cautioned that not all homeless people commit crimes, and said the department has been encouraging residents in the area, including Casa staff, to report incidents when they come up.
Casa Esperanza board chairman Mark Asman said the shelter has helped 749 people move into housing, and provided thousands of bed nights for people with mental-health issues and in need of medical respite.
“Casa has always tried to be an effective neighbor, but we are not solely responsible for all of the problems in the Milpas corridor,” he said.
Liquor stores in the area are one of those problems, and those selling cheap alcohol to blatantly inebriated people have long been lamented by Casa Executive Director Mike Foley.
Foley spoke Thursday on behalf of the shelter, and was one of several staff who admitted the Milpas Area Task Force has struggled to find its way. In spite of the ineffectiveness of that group, Foley said that Casa has taken steps to address concerns voiced by neighbors.
“We look forward to proving our commitment to the neighborhood in the coming years,” he told the commission.
On the other side of the issue was Julianna Reichard, chair of the Milpas task force and owner of the Habit burger chain. She said the task force has been a place for “endless discussion” where nothing got resolved.
“The intent is to take action and do things, not just talk about issues,” she said.
When neighbors do bring up problems, Casa staff are defensive, she said, noting that the board couldn’t even agree on such a basic level as to adopt its own meeting minutes.
Community Development Director Paul Casey commented on the city condition that problems be reported to taks force, saying it was “poorly written” in the original CUP.
“They’re in compliance, but clearly this effort is dysfunctional,” he said.
Representatives from the Milpas Community Association, the group behind this summer’s complaint, also weighed in on Thursday.
“The shelter seems to be going through the motions,” said Alan Bleecker, the group’s executive director. “There are three shelters on the Eastside, we only have problems with one,” he said, adding that the association doesn’t want to shut down Casa, but see it operate as a “good neighbor.”
“Please help us find that peaceful co-existence,” he said.
Dozens of people came out for public comment, including several staff from the beleaguered McDonald’s on lower Milpas. The manager of that store had been forced to hire a security guard for the store, who subsequently was punched in the face and needed stitches after confronting a homeless man in the store’s parking lot.
Up on the dais, Commissioner Deborah Schwartz was the first to offer her thoughts.
“There is hope for the reconciliation that I truly believe we all want,” she said, but in turn admitted that the process was broken.
That thought was echoed by Commissioner Mike Jordan.
“I continue to say that the supporters of Casa need to address the consequences in the neighborhood in the same way that they have compassion for the homeless,” he said.
Commissioner Paul Campanella said he’d like to see a more detailed listing of what is needed from the city to make the neighborhood happy.
Disappointment was the feeling mentioned several times by Commissioner Addison Thompson, who said though there’s no doubt the shelter provides a valuable service, and not all of the homeless in the area are Casa clients, the shelter carries the biggest burden in solving the issue.
Commissioner Sheila Lodge said she was dismayed to see the task force, meant to be a bridge between the community and the shelter, be called “dysfunctional” by one of its leaders.
Jostes, the mediator, was the last to speak Thursday, and much rests on him in terms of communication going forward.
“My charge is to see if we can identify common ground, and chart a way forward,” he said. “I’m going to do what I can on a short timeline.”