Few topics are as incendiary as homelessness in Santa Barbara. That was evident Thursday as more than 50 people lined up to speak in the packed council chambers before the city Planning Commission.
Advocates of Casa Esperanza Homeless Shelter, 816 Cacique St., presented commissioners with a two-year progress report, and city staff found that the shelter complies with all of the conditions needed to satisfy the center’s special set of permits.
Although no decisions were made Thursday, there were so many speakers that the Planning Commission had to continue the meeting until Nov. 4 in order for the commission to deliberate.
Casa Esperanza executive director Mike Foley was the first to speak Thursday and said that a combination of things had occurred since the shelter gave its last report two years ago. The economy tanked, sending more people onto the streets. Mental health services cut millions of dollars that formerly helped the uninsured get help. Police budget cuts have left the force under strain. And the Salvation Army substance abuse and treatment center in Carpinteria closed its doors.
Yet even in the face of all that, Foley said the center has seen many successes, including that 409 homeless were placed directly into housing this year, a 20 percent increase over the previous year and triple the number placed five years ago. The shelter also expects to serve 165,000 meals to the working poor, the sheltered homeless and unsheltered this year.
“No one will panhandle for these meals. No one will steal for these meals. No one will find these meals face down in a Dumpster,” Foley said. “Instead, they will have the nutrition they need to survive.”
The shelter’s lunch program was a target from many of those who spoke during public comment. According to city staff, Mayor Helene Schneider is asking that the 12-point planning group reconvene to re-examine the lunch program and how to best target hunger in the city.
Sue Adams was part of the original team that spearheaded the effort to build the shelter, and she talked to the commission Thursday about the community’s past with homelessness. Adams, who owned a shoe store on State Street in the 1990s, said there was a time when one couldn’t walk down State Street, two by two, without stepping on or near panhandlers.
“Begging was really confrontational,” she said. “We tried everything.”
Adams told a particularly moving account of stepping over someone sleeping in the alley behind her store one morning. The homeless man informed her that her store had been unlocked all night. Expecting to find devastation, Adams found none and even discovered that all of the money was still in the register.
“That gentleman changed my life. I think I’ve been looking for him ever since,” she said. “I had painted all homeless people with the same brush.”
The shelter’s permit was approved in 1999 and had two parts. The first allowed the conversion of the shelter, then a furniture store, into a homeless day center, an emergency homeless winter shelter for 230 people and a year-round shelter for up to 30 people. The second phase allowed the building to add a second story, but it didn’t increase capacity. It also added a lunch service for up to 200 people and a detox facility for 14 people.
In 2003, the Planning Commission increased the number of year-round beds to 100 from 30, a decision appealed by neighbors on Milpas Street. The City Council denied the appeal but allowed the 30 beds to increase to 100 for nine months of the year. The number of beds eventually increased to 100 beds year-round.
Last March, officials from the shelter requested an amendment to their permit, asking that 40 additional beds be allowed for 90 days. The Police Department also had requested an increase of beds by 10 percent to respond to the public safety needs and bad weather plaguing the homeless. The Planning Commission approved the increase, but with conditions. The shelter would have to report back on alternate locations to hold its lunch program, report on a study that compared day and evening shelter residents, and provide an update on how the shelter was coordinating with the Milpas Action Task Force, a group of community members, county and city officials, and shelter workers.
Police Capt. Alex Altavilla, a patrol officer, said that not all homeless people commit crimes. According to a Police Department analysis, crimes commonly associated with the homeless community in the lower Milpas Corridor have increased 472 percent in the past 12 years. At the shelter itself, offense reports have increased from eight, when the shelter opened in 1999, to a projected 62 this year, which means the staff at Casa Esperanza is placing more calls than ever.
“The higher that number, the better. They want to make sure that their operation is free of criminal activity,” he said, commending Foley and his staff for their vigilance.
After the reports, a mix of the formerly homeless, advocates and business owners in the Milpas area all shared their opinions. Many business owners maintained that the neighborhood shoulders an unfair burden, and implored the commission to reopen the CUP evaluation. Alan Bleecker, co-owner of Capitol Hardware, 711 N. Milpas St., and president of the recently resurrected Milpas Community Association, was the first to speak Thursday during public comment.
“We are not interested in moving Casa Esperanza or revoking their CUP,” he said, but added that it wasn’t fair to expect business owners and residents nearby to accept higher crime rates. “Something needs to change.”
John Dickson, co-owner of Tri-County Produce who took the podium wearing buttons for both CASA and MCA, said it’s “unfortunate we can’t all get along.” He said he caught a shoplifter Wednesday in his store, and arrested another homeless shoplifter on his way to the meeting Thursday. He noted the police statistics, including 472 percent, which he had written on a piece of paper. He hypothesized that even if the number were half or a quarter of what was reported, it would still be too much crime.
“Which number would all of you want to have in your neighborhood?” he asked commissioners.
David Hughes, a retired attorney who works at Community Kitchen serving meals, spoke about the importance of the lunch program. He said there’s a tremendous number of people who are parents, children and veterans getting the lunches, and that “the lunch issue should not just be a Milpas-only issue,” and the Milpas area shouldn’t be the only part of the city to bear the brunt of the outreach.
The meeting was continued until Nov. 4, when commissioners will deliberate on the issue.