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Commissioners Hear Good News, Bad News on Homelessness

Crime is down and more people are getting into homes, but Santa Barbara's homeless population appears to be on the rise. Officials fear the problem could worsen.

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People loiter near a gas station on lower Milpas Street, which soon may be designated as a “recovery zone.” A proposal to go to the Santa Barbara City Council would crack down on the high levels of drinking and drug use in the area, for the benefit of recovering addicts. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

When it comes to the local homeless population, the good news is that crime is down, and the success rate of eventually getting people into homes is up.

The not-so-good news is that the homeless population appears to be growing, and local leaders fear that the tanking economy could accelerate the phenomenon.

All of this was delivered in a presentation to the Santa Barbara City Planning Commission on Thursday afternoon by a cross-section of professionals who work with the homeless.

The presentation was a biannual update on Casa Esperanza, at 816 Cacique St. off lower Milpas. Such regular updates were mandated in the late 1990s, during the shelter’s hard-fought approval process, to appease neighbors in the area who opposed the development.

In general, the group’s report on Thursday was optimistic, though tempered by a sober underlying message: “Homelessness is increasing, despite all the good efforts,” said Roger Heroux, executive director of a new organization called Bringing Our Community Home, which is responsible for coordinating the county’s 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. “Every shelter in Santa Barbara is full.”

As an example, Heroux noted that the Transition House, a shelter on Cota Street that focuses on getting homeless families back on track, last month turned away 20 families.

“Homelessness has become, in our county, a social epidemic that is costing us tens of millions of dollars a year,” said Heroux, who was not part of the presentation but spoke to the commission as a member of the public.

Also, Casa Esperanza Executive Director Mike Foley said the number of people coming to the Santa Barbara shelter is rising sharply. He said the shelter took in 67 people during September 2007, compared with 138 during the same month this year.

On a positive note, he said the shelter has more than doubled the number of people placed into permanent housing, accomplishing the feat for 295 people during the past fiscal year, up from 128 the year before. He credited the improvement in part to a relatively new program in which outreach workers roam the streets looking for people in need of services.

The shelter, Foley said, takes a tough-love approach when it needs to, banishing from the premises those who can’t stay sober or meet the other necessary code-of-conduct requirements, but never permanently, “so one day they might be able to return in a more productive state.”

Meanwhile, even though the population of the shelter is on the rise, crime in the area is declining.

Santa Barbara Police Capt. Frank Mannix said that while crime in the area of lower Milpas predictably skyrocketed 700 percent in the handful of years after Casa Esperanza opened, in the past two years it has decreased significantly, by nearly 30 percent. 

He said that most of the crime in that area falls into the category of petty, usually taking the form of open-container violations. Across the city, he said, serious crime offenses are down even more, recently reaching a 12-year low.

The commission also heard a report on a proposal that, come January or February, will ask the City Council to create a “recovery zone” on lower Milpas Street. It would happen with an eye toward curtailing the high levels of drinking and drug use in the area, for the benefit of recovering addicts.

Under the proposal, the zone would include nearly everything on Milpas Street and some surrounding neighborhoods south of Highway 101. There, anyone who has been arrested for selling drugs in the area would be prohibited from returning until the completion of his or her probation period. Also, merchants who engage in the illegal practice of selling booze to intoxicated customers would be more closely monitored.

The idea, according to Milpas Action Task Force member Gary Linker, is to chip away at an unfortunate irony: The shelter attempting to help so many drug addicts is surrounded by drug pushers, most noticeably at a nearby labor line, where unemployed men wait around all day for on-the-spot construction work.

“You wouldn’t put a Weight Watchers across the street from a candy store,” Linker, executive director of the local nonprofit New Beginnings, told Noozhawk. “These guys come out of Casa Esperanza and they are walking into a street that’s full of drug dealers.”

Because the presentation did not pertain directly to land use matters, the Planning Commission on Thursday could do little but comment.

In general, commissioners had high praise for the group.

“You’re an incredible person, and you’ve done an incredible job,” Planning Commissioner George Myers told Foley. “I can’t tell you my admiration for you.”

Commissioner Stella Larson struck an ominous tone, in light of the nation’s deepening economic crisis.

“I think we’re going to see we haven’t reached the bottom yet,” she said. “When we are turning away 20 families (from the Transition House), that’s a polite number. I think we’re going to see many, many more. … I think there will be a wave of crisis.”

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