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Monday, December 17 , 2018, 4:44 am | Overcast 55º


One Year Later, Is Santa Barbara’s New Homeless Approach Making a Difference?

Despite ambitious 12-point plan, progress is hard to track and appears measured in small victories

It’s been one year since Santa Barbara launched its 12-point plan to address homelessness.

In February 2009, the City Council approved a targeted plan, focusing on areas like increased coordination with police and outreach teams to reduce calls for service and cracking down on aggressive panhandling.

But on the surface, the city looks as dogged by homelessness as ever. The number of calls to police for homeless-related disturbances has remained fairly consistent over the past year, amounting to more than 2,100 calls in all.

Panhandling throughout downtown, especially lower blocks of State Street, still persists, although the city has tried to crack down on more aggressive panhandlers.

City officials will be meeting Tuesday to discuss its progress, and Noozhawk decided to talk to the community to measure Santa Barbara’s successes and shortcomings with homelessness over the past 12 months.

Probably the best way to get a street-level look at the problem was a ride-along with SBPD Tactical Officer Keld Hove during his beat.

Santa Barbara police Tactical Officer Keld Hove helps a homeless man to Casa Esperanza for lunch Sunday. Expanded cooperation between police and nonprofit organizations are part of Santa Barbara's 12-point approach on homelessness, which officials will be evaluating Tuesday.
Santa Barbara police Tactical Officer Keld Hove helps a homeless man to Casa Esperanza for lunch Sunday. Expanded cooperation between police and nonprofit organizations are part of Santa Barbara’s 12-point approach on homelessness, which officials will be evaluating Tuesday. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Hove’s assignment for the past year has been solely focused on “restorative policing,” which means he’s checking in on Santa Barbara’s homeless every day he’s on duty. Hove works in collaboration with mental health services, drug and alcohol abuse programs, housing and other service groups to try address homelessness more holistically.

That’s because citations and arrests don’t usually serve to motivate someone who has a mental illness or is an alcoholic, or both, to stop common offenses, like violating open-container laws. It’s not unusual for a large percentage of homeless to receive two to three tickets each day, with an arrest usually culminating at the end of the day.

That many calls for service uses up a large portion of patrol time, and resources along with it. For Hove, his position reaching out to the homeless is not only a moral imperative but a practical one, as well.

So a large portion of his time is spent on things like helping the homeless get into detox programs or cleaned up so they can make appointments with mental health agencies or apply for Social Security. That is exactly the kind of coordination the city outlined in its plan last year.

But even one morning with Hove reveals how difficult progress can be. He helped one man check into a treatment program in Ventura recently, and even helped him pick out clean clothes at Catholic Charities before his appointment, only to get a call during the ride-along that the man had somehow ended back up in Santa Barbara and was sleeping in Pershing Park.

After packing up the man’s wheelchair in the patrol car, Hove drove him to Casa Esperanza so he could get a meal and not have to spend the night outside. Although Hove admits he was disappointed to see a lack of headway with that case, he has also seen his share of successes.

While at the shelter, he runs into a man named Joe, who asks the officer for a ride back to his home at Hotel de Riviera.

“I used to arrest him every day,” said Hove, motioning to Joe in the backseat. The man has now been sober a year, he says, but lived on Santa Barbara’s streets for 30 years before cleaning up. Talking to friends and various service workers “gave me enough hope to see it through,” he said.

But after 30 years of alcoholism, Joe said he made a simple decision: “I decided I’m not going to die in the streets.”

On the Frontlines

While many of the homeless battle their own wars with substance abuse and mental issues, some sit for hours outside of local businesses — to panhandle or to pass time before they move on.

One business owner who knows more about this issue than most is Brent Reichard, co-founder of The Habit Burger Grill, which has stores at 628 State St. and 216 S. Milpas St.

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

Reichard said sales at the Milpas store, which is around the corner from Casa Esperanza, at 816 Cacique St., were down last year about $250,000. Although he acknowledges other factors like the nearby Highway 101 construction can have a negative effect on sales, he says problems with the homeless have contributed, too.

“We have so many written complaints from families who won’t come back,” he said.

Reichard said that over a five-year period, activity around the Milpas store has gotten “much worse,” although the last two months have been better because restaurant employees have been consistent about calling the police over every disturbance.

Reichard said he doesn’t want to see the Casa Esperanza shelter go away, and he emphasized that he’s not against the homeless or giving them the help they need. At the same time, it’s still an issue for his customers in a big way.

“We’ve had homeless urinate in the flower bed in front of customers inside the store,” he said. “You don’t get a do-over with that customer.”

When asked what the city could do that would be most helpful for business owners, Reichard said the presence of bicycle officers would make a big difference.

“Unfortunately, it’s manpower,” he said, adding that he knows municipal budget constraints make that difficult.

There are some steps the city could take without spending a bundle, however.

For example, Reichard suggested that removing the bench in front of the State Street store would be one thing the city could do to tamp down the consistent panhandling, he said.

“Take away that bench and that would eliminate 80 percent of our problems,” he said. “Tourists don’t sit on that.”

Farther down Milpas, Tri-County Produce owner John Dixon has also seen his share of problems with homeless, including offenders he routinely catches shoplifting in his grocery and produce store at 335 S. Milpas St.

Dixon’s store sits squarely in the police district with the highest number of police calls for homeless disturbances in the last year — 238 in all.

It’s easy to understand his frustration.

“As much as we want to reach out to and help people, the city has been too passive in some of it’s policies,” Dixon said. “This city is lacking tough love.”

Dixon echoed Reichard’s sentiments that more of a police presence is needed.

Last year, retired police Officer Bob Casey was hired back to help patrol an 18-block area downtown and assist with homeless issues. A total of $40,000 in grants from the Santa Barbara Downtown Organization and a matching grant from the city helped fund his part-time position.

No official organization representing Milpas business owners exists, however, and the area lacks the political and financial clout of the 1,400-member Downtown Organization, which represents a downtown area bounded by Anacapa, Chapala, Micheltorena and Gutierrez streets.

“It’s just too expensive for us” to fund the area’s own patrol officer, Dixon said.

Dixon says he’s always tried to be active in the process, attending city meetings and participating in subcommittees. He even sits on Casa Esperanza’s board of directors, and is supportive of the shelter and its leadership.

But looking over the city’s plan and staff report in his office, “all this sounds good on paper, but is it going to work?” he asked.

“Two or three or five years from now, we’ll be able to say,” he said. “Only time will tell.”

Recovery Zone

Just up the street, Casa Esperanza executive director Mike Foley said the shelter has been increasing the number of days security staff work.

“We’ve really done a lot” since the shelter opened, he said. “But what’s changed around us has been daily police force.”

Foley said that when he started at the shelter, he saw police on bikes all around that area of town.

He said he has seen improvement at the Cabrillo Ball Field, which is cater-cornered from Tri-County Produce and down the street from the shelter.

Foley said the park area was subject to a “massive amount of drug dealing,” but that police have undertaken a significant crackdown.

“At this time last year, we could go out to Cabrillo Ball Field and count 35 to 40 people every day,” he said. Now, between 10 to 20 people — what Foley calls “bag-and-shopping cart people” — are regulars and there seems to be less drug activity.

Turning the Lower Milpas area into a recovery zone was one of the city’s goals, and police protested last year when a South Milpas store applied for a license that would have allowed it to sell hard liquor. City staff reports say the business owner later withdrew his application after being told the store would have to gain community support to get the license.

But while the city’s strategy targets stricter review on new state Alcoholic Beverage Control permits, some store owners have been less than discriminating with their current alcohol sales to the homeless, even to those who are visibly drunk.

Several months ago, Foley watched a homeless man, obviously impaired, go into a gas station and emerge with alcohol.

“I watched him, literally drunk, stumble into the stop-and-shop and I watched him come out with two containers of alcohol,” he said.

Foley confronted the store’s personnel, and also contacted Police Chief Cam Sanchez.

Santa Barbara police Tactical Officer Keld Hove stops at a bus bench to chat with a homeless woman.
Santa Barbara police Tactical Officer Keld Hove stops at a bus bench to chat with a homeless woman. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Another of the city’s goals is to launch an alternative-giving campaign for which downtown businesses would put out countertop change receptacles, with the donations going directly to street outreach.

Foley estimates that $600,000 a year is being handed to panhandlers, and he is supportive of the city’s giving campaign, which should launch sometime in April.

“If we can cut into the amount of cash being handed out on the streets, that’s going to help a lot of people,” Foley said.

Another homeless advocate, John Buttny, executive director of the nonprofit Bringing Our Community Home, worked with the city to create a position for a jail discharge planner to keep track of the homeless who enter Santa Barbara County Jail and help coordinate living arrangements. He said there’s still a problem with where to put people when they’re released, however.

While the new discharge planner has been keeping tabs on how many homeless are being brought to jail, only about four months of data have been collected because the jail had trouble keeping track of who was homeless. The new records show around 30 homeless brought to jail each month, about 60 percent of whom come from within Santa Barbara city limits.

“For a large part of these people, going to jail is like going to the grocery store,” Buttny said, because of how frequently they end up there.

Housing that provides services, but that are kept optional, are key, according to Buttny. It’s the concept of “safe-haven housing,” allowing people a place to live in safety until they decide to reach out for services, he explained.

“What we really need is the kind of housing that makes only one condition — that you don’t cause trouble,” he said.

Buttny said at least 50 more beds could make “a dent” in the problem, but that these wouldn’t be shelter beds, but permanent housing. The city has plans for three affordable housing projects, with a total of 200 new units for low-income residents, including the chronically homeless.

One area in which the city has made little progress is the number of detox beds that are available for homeless people who are ready to seek help for drug and alcohol addiction. No new beds have been established, although several new beds have opened up for men seeking detox facilities because women are now being transported to Lompoc for detox.

Mayor Helene Schneider said the city is still exploring ways to expand the number of detox beds, and that the 12-point document is a good baseline to work from.

“Before this, it was just whatever good idea may have come up, but now it’s a full a package,” she said.

Schneider said some things are not even close to being implemented.

“I think its a good document,” she said. “The challenge for us is to keep implementing all of the strategies with less funding.”

Adding more police will satisfy a short-term need, according to Schneider, but won’t solve the issue over the long term. She said that things like housing people first is what keeps them off the street for good.

“If they’re not getting the services they need, they’re going to end up on the street,” she said.

Tuesday’s council meeting begins at 2 p.m. at City Hall, 735 Anacapa St.

Getting to the Points

Santa Barbara’s 12-point plan to address homelessness was adopted last year. Its points are:

» Adoption of a city ordinance more restrictive on solicitation.

» Continue and expand intergovernmental cooperation to curb negative behavior.

» Continue to utilize Police Department deployment strategies to best meet the immediate demands of the community.

» Implement principles of a recovery zone for the Milpas area.

» Encourage coordination and cooperation of street outreach teams and the police department to work with those on the Top 100 open-container offender list.

» Acknowledge the need for more shelter beds for vulnerable populations.

» Consider using Community Development Block Grant and Redevelopment Agency funds for capital improvements in the lower Milpas Street area to mitigate the impact of homelessness.

» Recognize the need for additional detox beds and work with relevant agencies to help them with securing locations and funding for beds for homeless individuals with substance abuse issues.

» Continue and expand the Restorative Policing Program to work with homeless persons with mental illness.

» Work with service providers to secure funding for relocation funds and emergency hotel vouchers and programs to help reconnect people with their families.

» Develop a panhandling and alternate giving campaign.

» Continue looking for opportunities to assist with affordable housing projects, especially permanent supportive housing for homeless individuals.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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