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Local News

Public Library, Parks Affected by Homeless Population in Santa Barbara

City officials taking steps to help make visitors feel safer while directing people on the streets to needed services

A homeless person sleeps Wednesday afternoon near the Chase Palm Park parking lot in Santa Barbara. Managing issues related to the homeless population presents challenges for city parks and library staff. Click to view larger
A homeless person sleeps Wednesday afternoon near the Chase Palm Park parking lot in Santa Barbara. Managing issues related to the homeless population presents challenges for city parks and library staff. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Activity involving homeless people at the Santa Barbara Central Public Library and city parks and recreation facilities has city officials taking steps to help make visitors feel safer.

Library staff has seen an increase in the homeless population using the restrooms for bathing and storing their belongings in the facilities, according to Library Director Jessica Cadiente.

“The basic human needs that people who are homeless need every day continue to occur at our libraries,” Cadiente said Wednesday afternoon at a special City Council meeting. “The enforcement, clean up and custodial issues are a daily occurrence for staff.”

The public perception that libraries are an unsafe environment is an impact of the homeless, Cadiente said.

Cadiente is responsible for oversight at public libraries in Santa Barbara, Montecito, Goleta, Carpinteria, Buellton and Solvang. 

Custodial service is needed every hour the library is open to handle the circumstances throughout the day, Cadiente said.

Cadiente said library staff had undergone “significant” training to prepare them for handling issues and helping navigate referral services.

The libraries also don’t have security guards, Cadiente said.

“Our staff is ready and prepared,” Cadiente said.

It’s estimated that one-third of homeless people suffer from mental illness, Cadiente said, and a handful of library staff have undergone week-long mental-illness training and are teaching other staff members about how to handle situations.

Cadiente said the Children’s Library, which was relocated from the main level to the lower floor and is four times the size, increased the circulation numbers by more than 100,000 items.

“Parents felt they had a safe place to take their children,” Cadiente said.

Cadiente said the library follows guidelines and standards set by the American Library Association.

“Within our mission, we serve the poor and homeless population — but what we find is a mission creep occurring,” Cadiente said.

The Parks and Recreation Department looks after 60 parks and recreational locations, and of that number, about 20 facilities have homeless challenges, assistant department director Rich Hanna said.

Vandalism, public park avoidance and perceived safety concerns, increase on park maintenance, lower program participation, fewer facility rentals and revenue are the impacts Hanna highlighted. 

Hanna said that over the last decade, the department has seen an increase in criminal activities in park areas, which is limiting the public enjoyment of the open spaces.  

Parks and recreational staff are dealing with illegal and aggressive behaviors on a daily basis, including frequent drug use, excessive alcohol, prostitution and overnight camping, he said.

“As a department that relies on making revenue through programs, participation and facility rentals — when we have undesirable use at our parks, it’s easier for parents to move their activities to another location,” Hanna said. “We continue to experience items of misuse with our parks and recreation facilities.”

Hanna noted that homeless people are in some of the parks because of the free meals given out on certain days by charitable organizations.

During public comment, one man spoke about his personal experience receiving free meals at Santa Barbara’s Alameda Park and Pershing Park's Plaza del Mar.

“I am formerly homeless — many times I could not deal with it (free meals) because of the disruptive behavior, drugs and alcohol,” he said. “This has got to stop. Our parks are designed for people to take their kids and walk their dog.”

Hanna said strategies staff have been implementing to increase safety at the parks involve working with local youth providers to provide a safe environment to use restrooms and utilities, collaborating with meal and service providers, and working with the health department to ensure the free food and resources provided help "the population that is vulnerable to other health concerns." 

“We have had successful meetings, and these have been moving forward with no costs to the service providers,” Hanna said. 

The department has been working to modify and expand its ranger service to include a seven-day schedule starting at 6:30 a.m. and finishing at 9:30 p.m., Hanna said.

Additionally, the department is meeting with the Santa Barbara Police Department to share observations and coordinate resources.

“We are working together to make our parks more usable and increase the safety,” Hanna said.

Hanna acknowledged positives included at Wednesday’s meeting but added, “many of the positive progress in our department is still underway.”

Santa Barbara Police Chief Lori Luhnow spoke to the council and public.

Luhnow said in the past 12 months, police responded to 5,134 homeless-related calls for services, which is about 6 percent of the department’s total call volume.

“Anecdotally, any of our officers will say more than half of our calls for service are nuisance-related due to our homeless population,” Luhnow said.

Resources are dedicated to helping the department with homelessness challenges, Luhnow said.

The Tactical Patrol Force — which includes six sworn officers and a sergeant — handles the majority of the transient-related calls, while the remaining reports are handled by the officers assigned to the patrol.

Tactical Patrol Force also conducts the homeless camp clean-up efforts, Luhnow said.

One full-time sworn officer and two hourly civilian positions in the department oversee the Restorative Policing Program, which works with clients to place them in detox, housing or work programs.

In the last five years, 630 members of the transient population have been helped through the program, Luhnow said. 

Through the program, 16 percent were reunited with families, 13 percent were helped getting into supportive housing, 65 percent were connected to mental health and social services, and 67 percent entered detox or substance abuse programs (with 48 percent completing the program).

“I am extremely proud of the level of compassion by our officers who serve this community — especially with our homeless population,” Luhnow said. 

Local organizations tally the number of homeless people and document their personal circumstances every two years.

In January, the biannual effort to survey the homeless throughout the county using the Vulnerability Index and the Point-in-Time Count was organized by Common Ground Santa Barbara CountyAmeriCorps and Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H).

The one-day count is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Luke Barrett, the C3H regional coordinator, gave a public presentation that included the count’s data at Wednesday’s meeting.

Santa Barbara is the only region in the county with a consistent downward trend over the past eight years, Barrett said.

Volunteers tallied 790 people this year, compared to 893 people in 2015. 

One person during public comment noted this data does not reflect the homeless who are “couch surfing.”  

“It’s impossible to cover every single area,” Barrett said. “We did the best we could.”

Chuck Flacks, C3H executive director, said he is optimistic that homelessness is a solvable problem.

“Santa Barbara is doing something right — we have seen a decrease year after year in the number of homeless people,” Flack said. 

A critical need county-wide is affordable housing that would allow people to work and live, he said.

“We know how to end homelessness,” Flacks said. “It’s not an unsolvable problem of enormous cost. It’s about getting to the people on the street, their needs, getting them into housing and getting the services to keep them housed.”

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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