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Homelessness Debate Simmers to the Surface at Santa Barbara Council Meeting

Approval of a $1.5 million grant for the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara turns into a full-scale discussion of what to do about people who live on the streets

A seemingly routine item before the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday turned into a full-scale policy discussion about what — if anything — should be done to help the area’s homeless.

The item involved a $1.5 million grant for the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara for a project at 2904 State St., which would provide eight units of housing and supportive services for the area’s homeless. Nearly a dozen members of the public stepped up to sound off on the topic.

The issue has been at the forefront as news of Santa Barbara’s move to rearrange benches along State Street in an effort to stymie panhandling has been picked up by dozens of national media outlets, and multiple members of the City Council said Tuesday they were glad the topic was being discussed. Another, more local story centered on fences being erected around Cabrillo Ball Field to keep out homeless people.

The breadth of the discussion also signaled a policy sea change on the dais, and the item may have had an easier time being approved before last year’s election. Conservative newcomers Michael Self and Frank Hotchkiss took seats on the City Council after being elected in November, and local business owner Randy Rowse was appointed to replace the more liberal Das Williams after his election to the State Assembly.

The City Council eventually approved the grant to purchase the property, with Hotchkiss and Self voting against it.

Rob Pearson, executive director of the Housing Authority, addressed the council and described one big factor that has contributed to homelessness: The city has eliminated its single-resident occupancy housing, or SROs, which were basic living quarters for the homeless. About 400 SROs were lost that have not returned, Pierson said, and the city has been trying to make up for those numbers by placing smaller developments where it can across the city.

“These are the real solutions,” Pearson said. “You can’t end homelessness without housing.”

Interestingly, much of the discussion centered on discerning how someone homeless is “from” Santa Barbara, and whether those people should receive housing first. Pearson said the federal government establishes people as residents when they’re here for a day with all of their possessions.

“It’s a very difficult question,” he said, adding that a discrimination lawsuit could lie in wait as a result of withholding services based on whether a person is a native of the city.

Hotchkiss was dubious, telling Pearson, “I don’t think people in Santa Barbara would agree with that definition.”

He also took issue with the fact that neighbors weren’t notified that homeless people would be moving into the complex, but city attorney Steve Wiley said a notification wasn’t required because the changes wouldn’t affect the physical location or land use.

Pearson added that in the time that El Carrillo, a complex of 61 units for chronically homeless people, has been up and running, he hasn’t received a single complaint from neighbors.

Of the 11 public speakers at Tuesday’s meeting, only one spoke out in opposition to the grant.

Cautioning against those who take advantage of the system, Councilman Dale Francisco said he has fundamental issues with the city’s approach to homelessness. Taking jabs at organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Francisco said they’ve succeeded in making it impossible to commit people who need permanent care without their consent. Francisco also noted the lack of data surrounding the county’s homeless.

“I know of no other city as compassionate as this one,” he said. “It is my hope that we will continue to do it in a more intelligent way. ... We haven’t done a good enough job distinguishing between people who need help and people who will take advantage.”

A vacuum of data has long been a problem in the effort to house people, but a movement to document the county’s homeless to prioritize them for housing is under way with the group Common Ground Santa Barbara. The group will record a “vulnerability index” that documents factors that put a person at a higher risk of death, such as whether the person is age 60 or older or has had more than three emergency room visits in the previous three months.

A public meeting about the initiative will be held from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 3 in the Faulkner Gallery of the Santa Barbara Public Library. Rowse and Mayor Helene Schneider said they would be involved with the surveys.

Councilman Bendy White called California’s mental health system “tattered” and said that more people ended up on the streets as a result. In terms of shelters, however, he said he felt Santa Barbara “is doing more than our fair share for the region” and that he would like to see other cities and unincorporated areas step up.

Self said she didn’t have a problem with the concept, but with the location.

“It’s only a few blocks from Peabody (Charter) School. ... I’m not sure that putting a facility for mentally ill homeless is particularly good for a school district,” she said, adding that she would also like to see expectations put on people who live in the units. 

“These are eight units that will provide supportive housing for deserving people,” said Councilman Grant House, who took issue with the tone of other council members, calling it “unwelcoming.”

“If (the homeless) are here, they are members of our community,” House said. “It’s our job to do whatever we can to support and uplift the lives of those who live here. ... Whether they are legitimate objects of our compassion or not, they are our brethren.”

Schneider also lamented the loss of the SROs, the numbers of which still fall short of meeting the community’s needs.

“No wonder there isn’t the opportunity here for people to get into a small place to lay their head at night,” she said. She also took issue with those who spoke against the grant for the project, and issued a comment that garnered a round of applause from the public.

“It seems hypocritical to me that this body would demand people get off the streets and then deny them the funding to do so,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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