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Tuesday, December 18 , 2018, 12:28 pm | Partly Cloudy 63º


Blowing the Whistle on Sexual Assault

A simple tool is distributed to homeless women in the hopes of curbing the scourge of rape

Christhea Puglia, a homeless woman who helps out in the laundry room of Casa Esperanza, said the rape-alert whistles have already paid off. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

For homeless women, it’s literally a jungle out there, especially in the spring and summer months, after the annual downsizing of Casa Esperanza homeless shelter sends them out into the elements and leaves them vulnerable to sexual predators.

To offset the danger of the post-winter downsize to 100 beds from 200 — which is necessary for budgetary reasons — the shelter and the Santa Barbara Police Department are teaming up to distribute loud whistles for homeless women to blow when they’re feeling threatened.

Already, they’ve given away about 500, which were purchased for about 60 cents apiece by several private donors. The whistles are smaller than the kind used by coaches, but a little more piercing.

The problem is very real: Unfortunately, the week-old effort came a little late for a homeless woman who allegedly was gang-raped about a month ago in bushes near South Milpas Street and Calle Puerto Vallarta. No arrests have been made, but police say they are still investigating the case.

In any case, while it may seem strange that something as benign as a whistle could thwart an act as sinister as rape, social worker Ken Williams insists it works.

Williams, who organized the distribution of the whistles, said he got the idea from a similar project in San Diego.

“Rapists are cowards, they like to do things literally in the dark,” said Williams, who distributes the whistles at local encampments. “If you bring attention to them, they’ll leave. That’s the great hope.”

On at least one occasion, the whistles have already paid off.

Christhea Puglia, with her dog, Max, became eligible for a guard dog from the state after a sexual assault left her traumatized. (Rob Kuznia photo / Noozhawk)

Last week, homeless woman Chisthea Puglia said she was at Rainbow Park when she heard a whistle blow from other side of the grassy expanse. Puglia and her dog — a German shepherd named Max — rushed to the aid of a woman who had just received her whistle two days before. Shortly afterward two police officers stopped by to see what the fuss was about. The harassing man skulked away.

“It was nice because she felt safe,” said Puglia. “You can scream so loud and people think it’s funny because people are screaming all the time.”

Puglia herself has suffered the ravages of rape.

At 47, Puglia has held good jobs as a veterinary technician and as the manager of a do-it-yourself dog wash in San Diego. But she said she lost it after being attacked and raped by two men several years ago. Puglia said the incident left her so traumatized she had to leave the city. She said she wound up in Mexico for six years, and when she returned a former friend had made off with what was left of her possessions.

The crime made her eligible for a state guard dog, which she took to training school. Eventually, the guard dog died. Not long after, Puglia adopted a sickly German shepherd from a junkie, she said. Now, the shepherd — Max — is well-trained and groomed, and has become something of a mascot at Casa Esperanza.

Statistics specific to the rape of local homeless women are difficult to come by. Across the city, however, the frequency of rape has stayed the same or even increased slightly while crime as a whole has fallen considerably, according to a report put together this spring by Santa Barbara police.

While the number of reported crimes in the city has fallen steadily to about 3,400 in 2007 from about 4,600 in 1995, the frequency of “forcible rape” tends to go up and down. In 1995 there were 34 reported incidents; last calendar year, 42.

Police Sgt. Lorenzo Duarte, a department spokesman, said SBPD will be distributing the whistles to its tactical patrol force, which has the most contact with the homeless population.

“Anything that can be included to keep all members of our community safe, I’m definitely all for,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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