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Local News

Santa Barbara Planners See Clearer Path to Fixing Homelessness Problem with New Shelter Management

New operators of what was formerly the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter gave the Planning Commission its two-year update on their work

The Santa Barbara Planning Commission received its two-year status report Thursday on how well PATH Santa Barbara — the homeless shelter formerly known as Casa Esperanza — is handling its duties. Click to view larger
The Santa Barbara Planning Commission received its two-year status report Thursday on how well PATH Santa Barbara — the homeless shelter formerly known as Casa Esperanza — is handling its duties. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara Planning Commission received its two-year status report Thursday on how well PATH Santa Barbara — the homeless shelter formerly known as Casa Esperanza — is handling its duties.

The panel came away a little more optimistic about the direction that the issue of homelessness in the city is headed.

People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH, is a homeless-housing organization operating in California that merged in July 2015 with the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter at 816 Cacique St. to form PATH Santa Barbara.

Since a conditional-use permit was granted by the Planning Commission 17 years ago to operate a homeless shelter at the Milpas-neighborhood site, operators have had to present the commission with a status report every other year.

“Since the merger, we have focused on building our relationships with the community, strengthening the skills of our staff, and looking for opportunities to enhance service availability to the individuals we serve,” said Jennifer Hark-Dietz, PATH’s chief operating officer.

After the merger, the shelter stopped offering its Day Center and Community Kitchen lunch program to nonresidents, and adopted a softer approach to inebriated people who come into the shelter.

Casa Esperanza was operating under a strict sobriety rule, Hark-Dietz said, where people coming in under the influence of alcohol or drugs were immediately turned away.

PATH Santa Barbara, where about 100 people live, still requires sobriety, she said, but has employed an “evidence-based harm-reduction model” where staff look at why the inebriated visitors are struggling to remain sober and provide them with options for where they can turn before asking them to leave.

That model, she said, has led to more employment stability for those PATH serves, and a greater number of permanent exits from its shelters.

It’s a model that should have been in use 20 years ago, Commissioner Mike Jordan commented.

PATH Santa Barbara, which does not have a detox center but now has a job-training program, is also increasing the shelter’s focus on programming, Hark-Dietz said.

“What we try to do is really emphasize the program aspect as opposed to the shelter aspect, so that we can really get people into permanent solutions,” she said.

There’s still room for improvement for PATH Santa Barbara, however, when it comes to reigning in the behavior of homeless people around the shelter, said Alan Bleecker, the vice president of PATH Neighborhood Partnership (PNP), a community group that monitors PATH’s work and maintains a dialogue between the shelter and the Milpas Street neighborhood.

PATH Santa Barbara should put more resources toward regular patrols of the immediate neighborhood as well as toward making sure PATH’s residents adhere to the goals of the good-neighbor policy PATH works to maintain with its residents.

Drinking near the shelter and former PATH residents hanging around are a distraction to current PATH residents’ progress, Bleecker said.

“This is another reason why regular patrols are important around the PATH facility,” he said. “PATH staff occasionally try to move these people along, but it is a task they are not currently equipped to handle.”

He added that, on a personal note, he thought PATH was doing great work overall in the community.

It can be difficult to determine how many crimes and misconduct incidents in the lower Milpas area are due to PATH-affiliated homeless individuals, said Santa Barbara police Lt. Lorenzo Duarte.

“We’re still experiencing similar (crime) activity that we were experiencing two years ago” in that neighborhood, he said.

He noted, though, that since PATH’s implementation of changes at the shelter, the police have seen fewer calls for service in the shelter’s immediate neighborhood.

Several of the commissioners praised PATH and Bleecker for their work in changing the direction that the issue of homelessness is being taken, including PATH’s proactive programming and PNP’s community-driven efforts.

The absence of attendees with something to say at Thursday’s meeting, Commissioner Addison Thompson noted, indicates that PATH and PNP are on the right track in tackling homelessness.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman 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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