Homelessness in Montecito
According to the Wall Street Journal, California has 12% of the nation’s population, but accounts for half of the homeless population. San Francisco is only a few degrees cooler than Orlando in January, but the homeless rate in the City by the Bay is 30 times higher than Orlando.
In the last year, homelessness in San Francisco has jumped by 30%. Some 10,000 people live on the streets in the Tenderloin District and the other streets of San Francisco. Homelessness in Los Angeles is worse, with 59,000 homeless in the County and 36,000 in the City. All this comes at a time when the unemployment rate in California and the nation is at the lowest point in 50 years.
Why is California’s homeless rate so high? Much of California’s homelessness is self-inflicted. Our housing costs are the highest in the nation, putting affordable housing beyond the reach of a sizeable segment of our population. In addition, starting in 2015, California began decriminalizing anti-social behavior related to mental illness and drug and alcohol consumption, releasing inmates from jails, prisons and the criminal justice system without providing adequate support for behavioral wellness programs and/or addiction treatment.
Homelessness and panhandling have long been recognized as a systemic problem on Santa Barbara’s State Street, and in public parks, beaches, and on-off ramps of the 101. Not so much in Montecito, except near the roundabout close to Vons and Starbucks and along the Coast Village area.
Sharon Byrne, Executive Director of the Montecito Association (MA), recently challenged Caltrans to remove and evict a homeless encampment buried in the shrubbery at the Hot Springs/Cabrillo Blvd on-off ramps of US 101. The well-concealed encampment housed some 40 homeless men. Caltrans began the eviction in July but was forced to delay the final cleanup of 40 tons of trash and personal debris until August.
Less noticeable to local passersby is another popular encampment area along the Union Pacific railroad tracks between Olive Mill Road and Butterfly Lane. This is but one of many popular stop-off encampments embedded along the railroad right-of-way, from Miramar Avenue extending all the way to downtown Santa Barbara.
On the Beaches
Beaches in California are public places, but generally overnight camping and sleeping are prohibited by ordinance. However, in Santa Barbara, law enforcement pretty much turns a blind eye to those who sleep on or near the beach. An early morning stroll along Cabrillo Boulevard between Stearns Wharf and the Zoo will surprise you. The number of people sleeping on benches, in sleeping bags or portable tents on the sand, or inside their own cars is on the rise.
The Upper Village
A woman has recently taken up residence in the upper village, usually at the intersection of East Valley Road (Route 192) and San Ysidro. She moves back and forth between assorted bus benches and the Corner Green, lugging along a rolling suitcase and a shopping cart filled with her possessions. She is well known to law enforcement but refuses mental health or housing support. As a Jehovah’s Witness, she takes the position that “God will provide.”
Another visitor to the upper village can often be seen standing or crouching in the middle of East Valley Road, with no apparent realization of the traffic whizzing by. She too is well known to law enforcement, but rejects both housing and counseling.
Unfortunately, these two women are but two of a growing number who are discovering Montecito as a safe place for a temporary respite or as a longer-term destination.
Compassion vs. Common Sense
Judges in California routinely strike down ordinances that protect residents but conceivably could punish the homeless. For example, when the right for the homeless to erect sidewalk tents on the streets of Los Angeles – or to store shopping carts and personal belongings, including mattresses, on the sidewalks – were curtailed, a U.S. District Court Judge intervened and issued an injunction.
The rights of residents, shopkeepers, and visitors to use the sidewalks and benches for their intended purposes are often ignored. Restaurants now must spend serious money on private security to keep aggressive panhandlers and derelicts from bothering customers seeking to enjoy street-side patio dining.
California has yet to find the proper balance between businesses and homeowners who want to protect their private property value and the homeless who demand the right to live (and sometimes die) on our sidewalks and public parks.
Treating the Mentally Impaired
At some point, it will become necessary to allow public agencies and law enforcement to more easily exert guardianship over those battling mental illness or addiction to drugs and alcohol. This is highly controversial, but necessary to enable the homeless to help themselves.
Targeted Social Services
Charities such as PATH (People Assisting the Homeless, formerly Casa Esperanza), the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, Transition House, the Salvation Army, AmeriCorps, New Beginnings, C.A.R.E.S, Neighborhood Clinics, and a host of other agencies that serve the homeless offer food, showers, laundry, low cost medical and dental care, TB testing, and mental health counseling.
The City of Santa Barbara, and more recently the County, have spent millions of dollars on social service programs to house, feed, treat, and provide healthcare for the homeless. The County has created a test program called Assertive Outreach Treatment (AOT), which only has funding for 30, and is currently full. The problem is that the majority of the estimated 987 homeless in the City of Santa Barbara and Montecito reject social services, preferring the freedom to sleep on the street, near the beaches, in doorways, public parking stairwells, parks, on public benches, or in encampments.
More temporary shelter beds and mental health services seem to be an obvious remedy, but not when most of the homeless prefer the freedom of living on the streets. Besides, providing more services at higher tax rates, many argue, only attracts and incentivizes more homeless to come to this area.
The Coast Village Chevron Solution
On a local level, Marco and Mateo at the Chevron station on Coast Village Road encounter homeless and panhandlers every day. The homeless regularly purchase alcohol and tobacco products in their convenience store. Rather than ban the homeless, Marco’s advice is “You can use my restrooms but don’t disturb my customers. There is a Rescue Mission on Milpas where you can get three meals a day and a place to sleep.” Starbucks in Montecito takes a similar position.
Fortunately, we live in a strong community that has experienced the traumas of fire, flood, and mud. Residents are motivated to come together, stay connected, and solve issues. The challenge, as always, is lack of structure and lack of public support, but Montecito has the brains and the money to come up with positive solutions; in time, we will have to solve this problem, or at least create options to improve the lives of many if not most of the unfortunate street dwellers.