Downtown Santa Barbara
A private security guard walks along State Street in Santa Barbara on a recent morning. Property owners and city and county officials are considering a plan to expand private security for State Street. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Property owners are considering the creation of a State Street Association that would hire private security guards to address the homeless situation downtown.

It’s a new idea recently floated by the Santa Barbara Leadership Team, a group of property owners trying to advocate for the revitalization of and better conditions for State Street.

“We would be lost without a private security force on our property,” said Jim Knell, chairman of the SIMA Corp. “They react quickly, much quicker than the police department does.”

While private property owners are able to remove homeless individuals from their property, it’s not as easy on public sidewalks. A homeless person — or anyone — has the right to hang out or sleep in public areas if there are no formal indoor alternatives for them to sleep. The presence of homeless individuals can discourage some people from frequenting businesses, particularly if they are participating in inappropriate public behavior.

Knell described observing homeless people with their pants down “pleasuring themselves.” People walk by and come to a conclusion, which is, “I don’t want to come to State Street and have our kids see this,” Knell said.

He called the conditions “horrible.”

“Without public police or a private security force, we’re fighting a losing battle,” Knell said. “It’s a big plus to have a group like Mission Security be able to escort people off our properties. When they do escort them off our properties and they are in the public space, the game changes.”

Robin Elander, executive director of Downtown Santa Barbara, said there are pockets along State Street that create severe challenges.

“As it relates to security downtown, I think having an even amount of security throughout our downtown corridor is very important,” Elander said.

The way things are set up now, she said, is that some property owners and businesses have security for their areas, and they are “doing pretty well in terms of managing situations.” However, the places that don’t have private security are becoming magnets. 

“We just can’t manage all of this,” Elander said.

She said if there was an opportunity to turn State Street into a pilot program, or on a long-term basis over several blocks, the area could become a special district “that would be able to be controlled by private security in all of these public spaces.”

Knell agreed that a long-term plan is necessary because, without one, “we’re just hamsters on a wheel.” Private property owners need to take action; otherwise, “we’ll be stuck with the same thing for years.”

“We need police, and we need the private security force,” Knell said. “Without the private security force, our properties would be in worse shape than they are now.”

Interim Santa Barbara Police Chief Barney Melekian sat in on a recent meeting at which the State Street Association idea was discussed. He said versions of the idea have been done in other places.

“I don’t see any super downside to it,” Melekian said, adding that there would need to be conversations with private security firms to discuss jurisdictions.

Melekian said it’s time for a public-private partnership and alliances across government entities.

“I really think that until we have a true city/county partnership, and take a true regional approach in dealing with this, there are some jurisdictional issues that really get in the way of trying to solve this, just in terms of finding space and where to put people and how to get them to go there,” Melekian said.

The issue might get better, he said, as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions ease.

“There is kind of a reflexive moment away from crowds,” Melekian said. “As State Street opens back up, along with the police presence, I think that will kind of push people off of State Street.”

Gordon Auchincloss, retired Santa Barbara County chief assistant district attorney, said he would like to see the Santa Barbara Leadership Team have a stronger voice at the county level.

“They are legitimate concerns,” Auchincloss said. “We need our business corridors. We need our city back, but at the same time, we absolutely need to be sensitive to the individuals struggling with mental illness.”

He said the answers involve partnerships.

“I think there’s a path here,” Auchincloss said. “It’s going to involve some help from our business leaders, our landlords, individuals who own vacant land in the county to try to step up and provide some solutions.”

Elander said more evenly distributed private security is “absolutely necessary,” in conjunction with the city ambassadors, and volunteers, so the police can deal with the higher-level issues.

“It is what every single business speaks about downtown,” Elander said, noting that 21 homeless individuals have been placed into some form of housing since January. “It is their daily problem. Someone is in their doorway, people don’t want to come to their business, there’s concern of people not wanting to rent a vacant property because they are showing it, and there’s someone in their front door so they are discouraged from renting the public space. We’re going to need to change the dynamic in which we are working.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com.