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Santa Barbara Not Helpless In the Face of Homelessness

City officials are working hard to control and reduce homelessness here, but they need your help, too.

This is the time of year we remember our friends and family with gifts and food. We are reminded about the folks who have no family or place to stay, and many of us contribute to nonprofit organizations that feed and house the homeless. Recently I received an e-mail from a Santa Barbara resident whose wife had a confrontation with a homeless person in a stairwell, and he asked, “Isn’t it time for the city to do something?” Here is my answer.{mosimage}

I am truly sorry your wife had a confrontation with a homeless person in the stairwell. I hope she called 9-1-1 because aggressive panhandling is illegal. Our police officers downtown are experts in handling homeless or irrational people on our streets, but the police are not everywhere so we need the public to help.

Not only do the public and the police have to help with panhandlers and the homeless, we need our Superior Court judges to help us find a way to stop the aggressive behaviors and to teach the offenders a lesson.

Your e-mail implies that the city is doing nothing and has chosen the homeless over tourists. Nothing could be further from the truth.

High on our priority list is the homeless situation. In the past few years, the city has cleared off TV hill (more than 40 homeless, drug users), thanks to Chad and Ginny Dreier, who purchased that land. City staff also formed neighborhood cleanup crews that have cleared tons of garbage from homeless camps and neglected properties. The pictures of before and after are amazing. The neighborhoods and creeks look so much better, but there is more to do.

A couple of years ago I went with police officers on a walk along the railroad tracks and was horrified by the piles of garbage, the campsites, the needles, and so on. City staff has worked with Union Pacific, which is now paying us a monthly fee to keep the railroad tracks clean. Our cleaning crews have been aided by BFI and MarBorg as we clear the areas next to the tracks. Caltrans has helped us thin out the vegetation along Highway 101.

The city signed a pledge with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness to work to end chronic homelessness in Santa Barbara, an initiative of President Bush’s we have embraced. The county took the lead and other cities joined to adopt a 10-year plan. The idea is that if you give people decent housing and some time to work on their problems, their chances of becoming independent are better.

The best place to start is with the 10 percent most chronically homeless, who use 50 percent of the services. If we can get them off the streets it is an economical win-win.

Our 10-Year Plan has been adopted, a nonprofit organization has been formed and a board of directors chosen, and you soon will be hearing about the plan’s implementation. In 2008 we will be working with foundations to help us fund taking the chronically homeless off city streets. It’s a great plan, but we now need a good business plan to fund it.

Meanwhile, the city Housing Authority built El Carrillo, which recently received a national award for its innovation in housing the chronically homeless. The 61-unit complex — with rooms the size of motel rooms with kitchenettes — has been open one year and has an 80 percent success rate. Among the keys to that success are county mental health services, public health outreach and case management. Eleven of the residents have moved into jobs and are saving for permanent housing, which is the goal. Two residents are on nonprofit boards, and six volunteer around town.

Each January a homeless count is done in cities all over the nation. Our January count was 16 percent lower than in 2006. I hope our count next month is lower but Los Angeles is cleaning out its Skid Row, and hundreds of homeless are fleeing that city. We are the recipient of some of them. Please know we are doing our best to reduce our numbers.

This city government and this mayor are being very proactive to solve this problem. I see a difference on State Street, where I walk almost every day, but the L.A. element is starting to show up. Being an attractive downtown, we will entice all kinds of people and our residents do want diversity in our community. We don’t like aggressive behavior and we don’t like homelessness that drains our taxpayer dollars.

The priorities here are for our residents first. If we pay attention to the residents, then the tourists will come. We also need to give a clear message to the chronically homeless that they need to come in to the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, The Salvation Army, Transition House, Casa Esperanza or El Carrillo. Having the homeless use the emergency room, ambulance services, firefighters, police officers and so on is not a good use of our money.

As long as I am mayor, the priority here is for the residents, then the tourists and never homelessness. The goal of any homeless program must be permanent housing with drug and alcohol rehabilitation. We need more treatment beds on the South Coast. I am also thinking about a program to give tourists and residents a way to donate to the homeless services without giving money to them — compassion not cash. That money can be a death warrant to buy new drugs or alcohol.

I am sorry this is so long, but you asked if it isn’t time for the city to do something. That question was answered years ago in the affirmative. If you think of anything else, please do let me know. 

Happy holidays to all.

Mayor Marty Blum, a former elementary school teacher, was first elected to the Santa Barbara City Council in 1995 and was elected mayor in 2001 and re-elected in 2005. She can be reached at [email protected].

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