[Noozhawk’s note: Part of a series called Reimagine: Santa Barbara, a Noozhawk special report produced in partnership with Shared Mission Santa Barbara and KEYT News. Over the next several weeks, the series will trace the founding and evolution of downtown Santa Barbara, dive into the challenges we’re confronting today, explore the exciting opportunities in front of us, and take a look at what’s happening with downtowns in other communities. Throughout the series, we’ll be asking you to help us identify priorities and form a vision for State Street’s future.]
In March, Cristian Sagastume, owner of Wolf’s Head Trading Co., videotaped a man urinating on a bench in front of his store at 432 State St.
He sent the video to the police chief and to the City Council.
A couple of weeks later, Sagastume received a letter from the city informing him that homelessness has declined in Santa Barbara.
According to a point-in-time count, there had been 1,040 homeless people in Santa Barbara, but the official count in 2017 is now 790.
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The bench in front of Wolf’s Head was removed. That helped, but it hardly ended the problem.
“We don’t have the 17 vagrants that we used to have,” Sagastume told Noozhawk. “I still see smoking of marijuana. There’s probably human feces in my back alley right now.”
For the business owners in the 400 block of State Street, it seems as though the homeless population is on the rise, and the city isn’t doing enough to stop it.
“This is almost a neglected block,” Sagastume said. “It’s happening throughout State Street, but we see a lot of it on the 400 block of State Street.”
Santa Barbara has always struggled with homelessness and aggressive panhandlers.
“The issue of lifestyle transients and mentally challenged individuals is real and has been with us since the 1980s,” said Dave Davis, Santa Barbara’s former community development director.
“Unfortunately, the issue of lifestyle transients with substance abuse issues is one that this city has struggled with for decades. Frankly, I haven’t seen any community that has dealt with it any better than Santa Barbara has tried from a social services and from a law enforcement perspective.”
Three decades ago, nationally known homeless activist Mitch Snyder visited Santa Barbara, calling the city the worst in the nation in how it treats its homeless population.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Santa Barbara cracked down heavily on the homeless, arresting thousands of people after passing ordinances that banned them from sleeping and camping in public places, drinking alcohol in public and even voting in elections.
Snyder, who died in 1990, eventually led a charge to overturn the public sleeping ordinance.
The City Council on its own did reject a proposal that would have banned removing food from public trash cans.
In 1986, when President Ronald Reagan was visiting his ranch west of Santa Barbara, Snyder and hundreds of homeless activists staged a sit-in at De la Guerra Plaza in an attempt to pressure him to fund federal housing programs.
Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of The Chamber of the Santa Barbara Region, said the homeless problem downtown is “significant, but not intractable.”
The reality, he said, is that even if the number of homeless people in Santa Barbara has declined, “transient-related” incidents are hurting businesses.
“In a community whose economy is reliant on visitors, nuisance issues can cause long-term financial impacts,” Oplinger said.
“Regardless of anyone’s characterization, the perception is that a few aggressive panhandlers are in the downtown core, and it causes people to avoid the area and tell their friends, either here or outside the community. It is an issue that absolutely must be addressed.”
Santa Barbara has historically sent mixed signals in addressing the homeless problem. No longer does the city have an “arrest-first” approach with those who loiter on State Street.
Chronic, aggressive panhandlers are more likely to be approached by authorities.
One of the reasons State Street business owners might be feeling as though there is a concentration of homeless people downtown is because of the changes to the former Casa Esperanza on Santa Barbara’s Lower Eastside.
The homeless shelter used to offer meals during the day to sober transients. Eastside business owners led by the Milpas Community Association complained that the congregation of homeless people in the area was bad for business.
The homeless, before and after their meals, would fan out to Milpas Street, creating an uninviting environment.
In 2013, Santa Barbara cut funding to the kitchen day program.
Two years later, Casa Esperanza merged with PATH, People Assisting the Homeless, and the program became a transitional housing facility that helps people get off the streets. It began to focus only on the sober residents who stayed there overnight.
When the kitchen program closed, homeless residents migrated back downtown and into Carpinteria, Goleta and Isla Vista.
“We have always had people without a permanent residence who either reside in Santa Barbara or use the community as a stopover point,” Oplinger said. “(But) there has clearly been an increase in the last five years in transient-related incidents in the community.”
The urination incident in front of Wolf’s Head is not an isolated occurrence. Patrons of the now-closed Bucatini restaurant at the corner of State and East Haley streets observed a homeless man urinating on a planter in plain sight.
A couple of years ago, John Webby, who owned a candy store in the 500 block of State Street, got tired of finding condoms and sex toys in front of his shop in the morning. He said he witnessed homeless people regularly having sex on benches.
In a fit of frustration, he brought a dildo to City Hall and displayed it in front of the mayor and everyone in the council chamber and watching on television. It was a shocking moment, but he said he felt he needed to do it to make a point. The candy shop went out of business about a year later.
Hayes Commercial Group real estate broker and partner Michael Martz said people have had enough.
“The homeless issue is a real issue that has been building and getting worse over the years,” he said. “Aggressive panhandlers have a profoundly negative effect on retail and restaurants.
“First, they dissuade people from wanting to go downtown. Second, they cause continuous property damage to retailers’ storefronts. Third, they have created a reputation within the tourist sector that Santa Barbara has a homeless problem.”
The problem, Martz said, has escalated to the point of no return.
“Our political leaders have chosen to mostly ignore the issue until it reached a breaking point,” he said. “This breaking point happened with the confluence of retailers closing stores and leaving our market, and business and property owners pulling together to amplify the issue with the public and the city.”
That perspective is shared by Jim Knell, chairman of Sima Corp., a property management company with several landmark holdings downtown.
“Santa Barbara is not progressive; it’s regressive,” he said. “Santa Barbara has been the same for 30 years because of the historic nature it is trying to preserve.”
Knell said one quick fix would be for the city to remove the benches on State Street, but officials have shown no interest in doing so.
He said the number of homeless people on State Street is one of the first things people see. Tourists don’t want to be solicited for money by panhandlers, he noted, and locals don’t want to be harassed.
“The city is not using common-sense thinking into what is really necessary to keep them off the street,” Knell said.
In his observations, he says, people and tenants are migrating toward Coast Village Road because there isn’t the same street behavior there.
In addition to removing benches, Knell suggested the city could make the downtown area more attractive to the public — and less appealing for the homeless — by allowing property owners to paint their buildings a color other than white and add more lighting and landscaping.
“They have to allow change to take place otherwise the city is going to suffer from obsolescence,” he said.
“It’s not the city’s responsibility to move the homeless, but it’s not the city’s responsibility to take care of them either.”
The city has recently launched numerous efforts in response to inappropriate behavior downtown, including putting more people on the streets in the form of police officers, police volunteers and the new Downtown Ambassadors who make daily rounds of State Street.
Santa Barbara also contributes funding to PATH and the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness, which now has AmeriCorps homeless outreach members working downtown.
City officials have high hopes for the new Integrated Care Clinic, which is a partnership between the Sanctuary Centers of Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics. It opened in September and is the area’s first clinic to offer medical, dental and behavioral-health services for people with mental illness.
Steve Cushman, former president and CEO of the Santa Barbara chamber of commerce, said more law enforcement on State Street is part of the answer.
“We simply need a few more cops on foot patrol and a lot more places for poor people to get help and call home,” he said.
Sagastume said something needs to change. The 34-year-old Guatemalan-born business owner has lived in Santa Barbara since he was a year old.
He says that even though he loves the community, there’s no guarantee he’ll stay in the Lower State Street location. Wolf’s Head has an annex shop at 27½ E. Victoria St. that doesn’t deal with the same headaches.
He said he’s been recruited by malls and retail areas as close as La Cumbre Plaza and as far away as Agoura Hills and Los Angeles.
“I have seen State Street at its greatest and now look at it,” he said. “I think Santa Barbara can be great. It can be rad, but we can’t just be about Fiesta and alcohol, and the whole waterfront can’t support the rest of downtown.”
About This Series
Noozhawk’s Reimagine: Santa Barbara project is exploring the challenges and opportunities in downtown today, and will be working with you, our readers, to identify priorities and form a vision for State Street’s future.
It’s not just about shopping or dining, but finding out what locals want for the next generation of State Street and the downtown experience.
Should the city incentivize more housing projects in the downtown core, or get into the development business itself? Should business organizations work with property owners to curate more locally owned stores?
How can stakeholders work together to come up with innovative solutions for large properties like Macy’s in Paseo Nuevo and Saks OFF 5TH, which is vacating its store on State and Carrillo streets when its lease is up in the spring?
Have an idea? Have questions? Join the conversation in our reader-engagement platform, Noozhawk Asks.
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.