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Business

Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce Leads Talks on Tackling Panhandling

Community leaders explore solutions to the growing problem

In what could be described as a virtual powerhouse of business and governmental clout, the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce pulled together the community’s leading government, social, political and business leaders to take on the escalating problem of panhandling and street vagrancy on the South Coast.

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Janet Wolf started the discussion and brought with her the county’s leading department heads to discuss what is being done and to explore how the county, the city and the business community of Santa Barbara can better work together to address the escalating problem of panhandling and vagrancy.

“When Supervisor Wolf confirmed she was coming to this morning’s GRC (Government Relations Committee) meeting, everyone’s schedules suddenly opened up, allowing us to bring together some of the community’s best and brightest leaders to focus on the issues at hand,” said Michael Holliday, incoming chairman of the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce.

More than 30 minutes of presentations were given by county department heads, including Dr. Ann Detrick, director of the county Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services; Dr. Takashi Wada, director of Public Health; Delfino Neira, director of county Social Services; and David Matson, director of Housing and Community Development. Also in attendance were Santa Barbara City Administrator Jim Armstrong and newly appointed City Council member Randy Rowse.

Local business leaders for the chamber as well as members of the Downtown Organization, the Greater Santa Barbara Lodging & Restaurant Association, and the Conference and Visitors Bureau and Film Commission were given the opportunity to ask pointed questions.

The primary query posed was how county and city government and business leaders can work together to address what seems to be an escalating problem of panhandling and vagrancy. Supervisor Wolf offered to help lead the way in exploring opportunities to better work together and integrate services and resources. The focus of the effort is to promote the local regional economy and to support local business needs while helping people in need get the help they need to get them off the street and integrated back into a normal productive lifestyle.

“Nobody is going to feel compassion for the panhandlers or homeless until they feel safe,” said Steve Amerikaner, adding that the city and the county should develop a first response system to address the concern for safety. The concept would involve a South Coast reporting system with which if anyone has a concern regarding aggressive panhandling or vagrancy, they have one phone number to call to get someone dispatched to help a person in need who is not necessarily a police officer or firefighter.

Members of the Downtown Organization mentioned their “Real Change, Not Spare Change” program, which is designed to help people in need in the community while not promoting the root causes of panhandling and vagrancy.

The GRC meeting was the second of what the chamber will host in the months ahead to allow civic, business and government leaders a forum to explore ways to work together to come up with simple, effective, measurable means to address what most attendees see as a growing problem in our city and county.

The overall goal of this effort is that with a concentrated, focused and integrated county/city program that existing funds can be combined with new sources of business support funds to develop an effective means of dealing with workable solutions that benefit the community economy and businesses and also support individuals in need while removing incentives for chronic panhandling and vagrancy in the community.

— Renee Johnson represents the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce.

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