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Thursday, January 17 , 2019, 9:47 pm | Fog/Mist 56º


Public’s Fear of Undesired Activity at Santa Barbara Parks Driving Search for New Solutions

Officials say community participation is key to mitigating — reversing — unsavory activities in publicly used spaces

The Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department has added lighting and removed benches and vegetation to fight “misuse” at Plaza de Vera Cruz Park, which stretches between East Cota and East Haley streets in the 100 block. Locals often refer to the facility as “Needle Park.” Click to view larger
The Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department has added lighting and removed benches and vegetation to fight “misuse” at Plaza de Vera Cruz Park, which stretches between East Cota and East Haley streets in the 100 block. Locals often refer to the facility as “Needle Park.” (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

As common a sight in Santa Barbara parks as pick-up soccer games or festivals are sleeping bags and makeshift tents.

While a wide array of social factors lead homeless, poor and mentally ill residents to congregate in the city’s parks and recreational facilities, their continuous presence — coupled with various forms of criminal activity — has created conditions that city officials say have caused many other residents to steer clear.

“We’ve heard from the public, and it’s just time for us as a commission to start this public discussion on how we can address the activities that are going on in our parks,” Beebe Longstreet, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, said at the agency’s meeting last week.

The Parks and Recreation Department looks after 60 parks and recreational facilities. Twenty-two of those, predominantly in the waterfront and Eastside areas, have been subject to more intense “misuse,” department director Jill Zachary said.

The unwanted and dangerous activity has included vandalism, “undesirable overnight use,” verbal abuse, physical aggression, excess trash, and criminal activity like prostitution and selling drugs.

The Parks and Recreation Department estimates that some $415,000 a year goes toward mitigation measures above and beyond normal maintenance. It has reported more than 2,100 incidents of misuse over the past two years.

Zachary estimated $100,000 in revenue is lost when residents forgo recreation programming because of real or perceived safety and health concerns.

Those concerns also extend to the municipal crews that maintain the parks and facilities.

“Staff are having to deal with human waste at times; they’re having to deal with needles and syringes — things that really aren’t written into a job description,” assistant department director Rich Hanna said.

Zachary explained that amenities like benches and bathrooms and their proximity to commercial areas draw the chronically poor, mentally ill and unhoused to parks and recreational facilities.

Groups of people are also drawn by free meals given out in certain parks on certain days by individuals and organizations, like Santa Barbara Street Medicine and Trader Joe’s.

In response to unsavory activity, the Parks and Recreation Department has removed physical amenities in some places and installed new lighting, security cameras, signage and fencing instead.

Holding more recreational programming in parks, such as youth sports tournaments, is a key way of reducing misuse, Zachary and Hanna said.

Working closely with Parks and Recreation has been the Santa Barbara Police Department.

Lt. Ed Olson told the commission that SBPD is looking to target unwanted actions rather than people, develop strategies to bring more people to parks, and potentially pursue barring certain individuals from a park after racking up a requisite number of violations.

“What you’re not hearing is cops in the parks writing tickets,” said Olson, who has spearheaded restorative policing efforts in the city.

“It’s the new things that we’re going to have to try in order to get change because the old ways are not suitable to Santa Barbara,” he explained.

The first people to be released from overcrowded jails are those in for nuisance issues, he elaborated, and people who can’t afford fines for municipal code violations often end up doing community service in food lines in areas they were already frequenting.

“Every time we issue a citation, or arrest someone for that type of violation, they learn that there’s just no real penalty for it,” Olson said. “So they don’t mind continuing that nuisance behavior.”

Commissioner Jacob Lesner-Buxton cautioned that many of the mentally ill and homeless who frequent parks are stigmatized for their situations. He said the wrong approach could exacerbate that.

A primary challenge the city faces, Zachary added, is that people tend to avoid the places they don’t want to go to, rather than get involved in strategies to improve them.

Galvanizing public participation and interest in utilizing parks and recreational facilities more often is vital to the effort, she and Olson agreed, and would not only drive away unwanted activity, but demonstrate to other residents that the facilities are fine to use.

Longstreet said that Wednesday’s report was only the beginning of the commission’s effort to gather public input and develop solutions. She said the commission will take up the issue again when it reconvenes in January.

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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