The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday discussed the city’s homelessness efforts, with the bottom line that through enforcement, intervention and prevention, its 12-point plan has had some success during the past year.

Last February, the council directed staff to implement recommended strategies created through a subcommittee and community meetings, mostly through policy and program changes.

The council adopted a panhandling ordinance in December prohibiting abusive handling and puts limits on active panhandling in which people verbally ask for money. An alternative giving program will launch in April, allowing the community to contribute to outreach programs through countertop boxes at stores and eventually through a street-side option.

The Santa Barbara Police Department has been working closely with other agencies on restorative policing, outreach and treatment.

Common offenders of open container and aggressive panhandling have been given misdemeanors instead of infractions, and police found treatment for five people who accounted for 311 arrests and 1,1516 misdemeanor citations.

All tactical patrol force officers are trained in restorative policing, and the department held a crisis intervention class in February. Officers such as Keld Hove, with whom Noozhawk accompanied on a ride-along last week, work with the homeless population and related organizations.

A lot of attention is focused on problem areas such as the Cabrillo Ball Field, which is expected to have a 6-foot fence erected around it as a capital improvement project associated with the 12 strategies.

The fence was questioned by John Dixon, the owner of Tri-County Produce on Lower Milpas Street, as being an effective strategy since he guessed most people would merely move to another area of the park.

Sue Gray, the community development department’s administrative services manager, agreed that the fence wasn’t a perfect solution, but that it was at least a start.

The homeless people at the park tend to be resistant to treatment or outreach, police Lt. Jim Pfeging said.

View Homeless Disturbances Over the Last 12 Months in a larger map
(Lara Cooper / Noozhawk map)

He said Santa Barbara is also pursuing an “alcohol impact zone” designation for the Milpas Area Recovery Zone, which necessitates changes by the state legislature since there isn’t a legal designation available. Police successfully protested a South Milpas store from acquiring an enhanced liquor license, however.

The county jail hired a homeless inmate discharge planner to help keep a connection after people are arrested. Tona Wakefield, who started work in November, contacts 30 to 50 people a month.

Having a person inside the jail helps keep a connection with organizations and provides consistency since chronic homeless are distrustful of the system, Bring Our Community Home Executive Director John Butney said.

Still, he said, there’s a problem with available shelter and program space. “There’s no place to send them,” Butney said.

Many people can’t stay in a traditional shelter, and the city doesn’t have the option of a wet shelter — where people don’t have to be clean and sober to enter — or one where people don’t have to accept services, he said.

Santa Barbara has worked to increase shelter beds, including having Casa Esperanza increase its beds by 10 percent by request of the police, Gray said. With a shortage of detox and recovery beds as well, especially for men, the city’s women have been sent to North County while organizations look for a bigger, permanent location.

Transition House has established a waiting list, instead of telling people to come back the next day, and in addition to funding for emergency hotel vouchers. During the pilot project, 161 families were on the waiting list, and eight used the vouchers for a total of 14 nights. The waiting list alone helped families stay longer with family or friends, since they had a plan and the opportunity to go to Transition House soon, Gray said.

Increased affordable housing is also included in the 12 strategies, and the Housing Authority’s Artisan Court and Bradley Property projects will have one-third to one-half of the units available for homeless persons. Transition House is adding a mixed use building with extra units and an infant care center as well.

The shortage of beds — soon to be even more so with the county decision to cut down on Vista del Mar’s beds — has city officials and organizations concerned.

Mike Foley, executive director of Casa Esperanza, said further limits to psychiatric care and beds will have “a devastating effect on our cities.”

Councilman Das Williams said Tuesday that emergency room employees are worried about the overcrowding situation and are “basically using the ER as a de facto holding tank.”

Councilman Bendy White spoke of fair share, saying Santa Barbara could be expected to bite off a big chunk, but neighboring jurisdictions need to participate as well.

The amount of available shelter beds has long been a concern, and the city was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union last March for anti-sleeping and anti-camping ordinances that prohibit sleeping in certain public places.

Later that month, the Planning Commission approved amendments to Casa Esperanza’s permit to increase the year-round shelter beds to 140, which was a concern in the lawsuit, as Casa Esperanza’s winter program closes in April. The ACLU has sued other Southern California cities for similar ordinances, including Los Angeles and Laguna Beach, which resulted in settlement and a repeal of an anti-sleeping ordinance, respectively.

Mayor Helene Schneider has said the lawsuit was to “keep us honest” and continue working on the problem.

The council acknowledged Tuesday that there’s a lot of work left to do, but members thanked staff, police and local organizations for their efforts.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at