Wednesday, September 28 , 2016, 11:46 pm | Fair 66º

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Local News

Revived Milpas Association Unites to ‘Take Our Neighborhood Back’

Residents and business owners are ready to tackle issues such as homelessness and drug use that have affected the area

The Milpas Corridor is one of Santa Barbara’s most vibrant areas, but its residents and business owners say they’ve had enough of the issues that have plagued the street for decades.

After disbanding years ago, a group representing the Milpas Corridor community has been resurrected, taking on some of the area’s biggest issues of homelessness, public intoxication, drug use and the like. On Tuesday, that push-back was formalized when the Milpas Community Association, before a group of about 70 people who gathered at the Santa Barbara Inn, discussed its plans to improve the area.

The event, touted as a news conference, served as more of a forum as members of the community brought up a number of issues. Listening to a host of questions was Alan Bleecker, owner of Capitol Hardware on Milpas Street. He has spearheaded the effort to revive the group, and has described the heavily used corridor as a place with the potential to be a great neighborhood.

Reading from a statement because he said the group already has been misquoted in the media in an attempt to create controversy, Bleecker talked about some of the hurdles facing the group. Cabrillo Ball Field should be a vibrant place for families and teams, he said, but “our city has allowed that field to be taken over by drug use, prostitution and vagrancy.”

“People are not safe,” he said, adding that residents along the Milpas Corridor just want the same protection from law enforcement that other neighborhoods receive. There are five schools in the area, he said, resulting in many of the students walking the corridor and past situations that can be unsafe.

Comments have been made that the group is against homeless shelter Casa Esperanza, and though Bleecker acknowledged that the neighborhood did fight the shelter’s presence when it was first built, he said neighbors respect the job Casa Esperanza is doing and appreciate its mission. He added, however, that the answer to the homeless issue can’t be to send them all to Casa Esperanza.

“One facility cannot do it all, and the spillover effect to the neighborhood is dire,” he said, adding that having the neighborhood host 300-plus homeless people per day and having one facility be responsible for feeding them isn’t sustainable. “We’ve been tolerant and helpful for a very long time. But that doesn’t give anyone the right to abuse our neighborhood, and us within it. ... Starting today, we’re taking our neighborhood back.”

Festering for years, the problems on the street stem from at least two sources. Many business owners in the area say that the east side of town — with its taquerias, markets and locally owned businesses — often gets forgotten. The powerful and well-funded Santa Barbara Downtown Organization represents businesses on State Street, but many residents and business owners on Milpas say their street is just as heavily used and in need of resources. Milpas Community Association members say an example lies in the lack of police presence and slow response times that have dogged the area.

Alan Bleecker, owner of Capitol Hardware on Milpas Street, spearheaded the effort to bring back the Milpas Community Association.
Alan Bleecker, owner of Capitol Hardware on Milpas Street, spearheaded the effort to bring back the Milpas Community Association. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

The presence of Casa Esperanza has also created divisions. Though the shelter exists in an industrial area on Cacique Street, which flows into Milpas, nearby business owners say the presence of the homeless affects business in a big way.

Mike Foley, executive director of Casa Esperanza, said in August that the street’s 31 liquor licenses have exacerbated the problems among the homeless, many of whom struggle with substance abuse. In a statement sent out Tuesday, the staff at Casa Esperanza welcomed formation of the Milpas Community Association.

“It has been our experience that in the absence of a well-organized community association, the struggle for achieving the resources this neighborhood so desperately needs has been a lonely call for help,” the statement read. “Today we trust that the new Milpas Community Association has answered the call to help everyone who lives, works, visits and resides in this neighborhood, and optimism is returning to the community.”

Asked about police response, Bleecker said the group has sat down with Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez, who has agreed to assign a beat coordinator to the area.

“It’s a great response and a step in the right direction, but I think we need to do a little better than that,” Bleecker said.

He was asked whether his group has approached the city about working toward a matching grant to fund a dedicated officer to the area, like the Downtown Organization did for officer Bob Casey, who patrols State Street. “We have not yet, but we are definitely open,” he said.

Just since the group formed five days ago, Bleecker said it has seen quicker response to police calls, and has even seen a sting occur on the Cabrillo Ball Field, “taking care of a lot of illegal activity.”

Implementing a neighborhood watch program, launching the “Real Change, Not Spare Change” program and requesting that Santa Barbara County Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services deploy more resources to help the mentally ill in the area were all part of the group’s ideas to address the issues.

Sharon Byrne of the Milpas Community Association said a big emphasis will be on “re-greening” the area, with landscaping along roadways and in common areas.

Tuesday’s meeting touched on sensitive topics, but it was remarkably civil.

Audrey Adison-Williams, who said she has been homeless in Santa Barbara since February, thanked the group for the attitude of the meeting.

“It’s very different from what I’ve experienced in Santa Barbara,” she said. “What the city has been doing hasn’t been working. ... One of the reasons stems from an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. There are many people like myself who are homeless in Santa Barbara who have gifts to bring and things to offer. You have people who were homeowners in this city a year ago, and are now living in their cars.”

J. Louis Watkins, pastor at New Friendship Baptist Church on Cota Street, said the church has been concerned with safety.

“Maybe we’ve been putting Band-Aids on (the problem), but we need more than just Band-Aids,” he said. “I’m sure there are some solutions that can be made.”

Deborah Barnes of Worth Street Reach said homelessness is a countywide problem, not just on Milpas Street.

“This economy is not helping, there are no jobs in Santa Barbara,” she said, adding that the lack of shelters for women and children remains an issue. She offered to be part of the community association’s meetings and to offer solutions. “We have more people than we’ve ever seen. We’re getting new people everyday, begging for help.”

An interesting proposal was suggested by Old Yacht Club Inn owner Eilene Bruce, who operates the bed and breakfast located just off Milpas Street. She said hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts such as hers pay hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in bed tax to the city.

“If we could have part of those funds allocated to the cleanup and keeping the meetings going, I think it would cost a lot less than the city to have that done,” she said.

The group plans to meet once a month as a board. It also has a Web site and a Facebook page.

In the meantime, the group will host its first activity from 9 a.m. to noon this Saturday, aptly named “Let’s Clean Up Milpas.” It will begin at the intersection of Canon Perdido and Milpas and end at the Cabrillo Ball Field. At the end of the cleanup, MCA Vice President Sebastian Saldana said the group will meet at the ball field for a meet-and-greet among the neighbors, where they’ll be able to sign up for neighborhood watch and pick up graffiti abatement kits.

“We are not going to be able to turn this street around unless we come together as a community. That’s the only way this is going to work,” Byrne said. “A watched neighborhood is a safe neighborhood. These are things that we all have to do together.”

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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