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Friday, March 22 , 2019, 10:00 pm | Fair 56º

 
 
 
 

Eastside Businesses, Residents Speak Out About Neighborhood Challenges

Most of the discussion at a community forum focuses on homelessness and related problems

In a town hall-style meeting Wednesday evening that lasted more than two hours, residents and business owners of Santa Barbara’s Milpas Corridor and Eastside neighborhood vented their frustration to leaders that highlighted just some of the challenges the area is facing.

A handful of leaders, as well as members of the Franklin Center Advisory Committee, listened as a solid turnout of Eastsiders talked about the view from street level. Much of the discussion centered on homelessness.

(Click here for a previous Noozhawk story on homelessness in the city and in the Milpas area.)

Wednesday’s meeting, held at the Franklin Neighborhood Center, was borne out of the concerns of neighborhood residents to look at illegal dumping, drug dealing and homelessness, among other topics of concern, said FNC member Sharon Byrne, who moderated the evening’s discussion.

The panel included representatives from Santa Barbara County’s Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services, a city building inspector and representatives from the county’s Housing and Community Development Department.

Lt. James Pfleging of the Santa Barbara Police Department was on hand, as was Mike Foley, executive director of Casa Esperanza.

Foley, who said he doesn’t reside in Santa Barbara anymore but formerly lived on the Eastside, stressed that many of the issues regarding the homelessness issue on Milpas are caused by the environment of the corridor. The fact that the Cabrillo Ball Field is a popular homeless hangout plagued by drugs in the past was touched on, as was the amount of liquor licenses in the area.

“Whose idea was it to have 31 liquor licenses on Milpas?” he asked.

Although no one brought up mental health specifically, the recent cuts made to ADMHS earlier this year were not lost on Foley. “You’re beginning to see the effects of those things falling apart,” he said.

Changing the zoning regulations to limit alcohol sales, more police presence and turning Cabrillo Ball Field into a dog park were all suggestions brought up by various speakers. Byrne urged residents to contact the City Council and Parks & Recreation director Nancy Rapp with ideas for the park.

The Rev. Rafael Marin-Leon of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church says he's concerned about the safety of the children who attend school at the church.
The Rev. Rafael Marin-Leon of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church says he’s concerned about the safety of the children who attend school at the church. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Frustration was palpable among nearly everyone in attendance about police response times. Byrne asked how many people didn’t bother calling in incidents because of response time, and about a dozen people raised their hands.

Bruce Reichard, who owns The Habit Burger chain, said police show up after incidents have occurred, and by then business has already been lost. Reichard said that when he brings family into town, he’s afraid to bring them to the chain’s Milpas location because of the homeless and panhandling.

“I take them out to Goleta,” Reichard said of the chain’s Old Town Goleta location. He said that of the 35 restaurants the chain operates up and down California, “(Milpas) is the worst location.”

“It’s small business that pay the bills here,” he said, lamenting about the lack of police presence. “I’m bitter.”

Rick Feldman, who owns the Eyeglass Factory on Milpas, insisted that more police presence could greatly benefit the area, adding that Trader Joe’s on lower Milpas has had to hire its own security detail to prevent the homeless from panhandling in the parking lot.

“We have to base our response to problems based on the severity of the need,” Pfleging acknowledged, and encouraged all residents to place calls to police when incidents occur.

David Petersen, owner of the Milpas McDonald’s, began public comment by stating that just Tuesday, a crack addict had been discovered passed out in one of the restaurant’s bathroom stalls.

“Our restrooms are ground zero,” he said.

The ire of local residents came through with speaker Rose Aldana, who lives in a family home behind Trader Joe’s. She said bottles are thrown over into her yard from the parking lot, and homeless people have climbed into trees in her yard.

“We can’t walk to the store with our grandkids (because of the homeless),” another speaker said.

One of the night’s most impassioned pleas came from the Rev. Rafael Marin-Leon of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. He said he often has to lock up the church for the safety of the children who go to school there, and that creates a climate of fear.

“I’m not angry, just impassioned,” he said.

Another common topic of the evening was the loss of the Milpas Association, a former group that attempted to represent the area’s businesses but disbanded from lack of involvement. A sense of inequality was expressed between resources given to the Downtown Organization, which represents the interests of downtown businesses, and those given to Milpas Street businesses.

“The Downtown Organization gets what they need,” one speaker said.

After Wednesday’s meeting, a groundswell of support may be under way to resurrect the former association.

Several policymakers were at the meeting, including Councilmen Frank Hotchkiss, Bendy White and Dale Francisco, who encouraged the meeting’s attendees to speak at City Council meetings, reminding them that the groups who speak are often the ones who end up with funding.

“You all have incredible stories,” Francisco said. “You need to make sure city councilmembers hear those stories.”

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

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