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A popular tourist destination and site of massive revenue for Santa Barbara, State Street makes bank off of those looking for a safe, quaint shopping experience. Yet against the backdrop of uniform adobe architecture and terracotta adornments clashes the presence of those without the means to afford a simple residence or sustenance, much less the wares of half of the upscale stores lining the downtown area. For years, residents have clamored over the “uncomfortable” reality of facing men and women lying in tattered clothing along benches across State Street, and organizations such as Casa Esperanza and the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission sprang up to help find a place for the many homeless across the county.
In the past few months, a growing influx of young, aggressive “transients” has added a layer of complexity to the already looming problem of both placating residents and providing resources for the local homeless population.
Frequent visitors to State Street likely have run into a number of these disruptive, sometimes violent panhandlers. I’ve walked the downtown area pretty much every year for the past decade and only within the past two years have I started assessing my safety and avoided passing storefronts or benches with a concentration of mostly young, shouting people.
Recently, Santa Barbara has joined the growing number of cities placing increased pressure on homeless individuals to vacate the streets, through increased police enforcement of the State Street Behavior and Panhandling ordinances and additional stringent measures. Assessing the situation now involves finding a balance between polarizing views in the community.
Faced with endless complaints and calls for a police crackdown, Santa Barbara officials delivered. In March of this year, Police Chief Cam Sanchez ramped up police activity on the 600 block of State Street, focusing on aggressive young homeless people, and prohibited occupation of a brick art installation in front of the downtown Habit restaurant. Beat coordinators patrol the downtown area and alert police to moving homeless encampments.
While increased police presence effectively curbs illegal or overtly disruptive activity, the power of the law and law enforcement endangers the rights of those in the gray area, including the “involuntary homeless” who may loiter around and, in particular, the older homeless population without the resources or ability to care for themselves.
According to Santa Barbara’s Heath Care for the Homeless website, about 6,250 people are experiencing homelessness in the county. Many of these people suffer from mental illnesses or drug-related problems that prevent or deter their completion of effective rehabilitation programs, resulting in hundreds of homeless people with nowhere to turn but the streets. A report by the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness noted 577 homeless individuals have been housed this past year from May 2013 until May 2014 in Santa Barbara County. Of that number, 151 were children, 177 were labeled “Chronic and/or Vulnerable” and 81 were veterans. Of the 577 people moved, 203 were from the City of Santa Barbara specifically.
So Santa Barbara has a problem. Police monitoring of disruptive individuals does work, but it’s an expensive solution to only one facet of a very old issue. According to a June 5 article by the Independent, the Santa Barbara City Council decided this month to reserve $150,000 to hire two private security personnel to monitor State Street and the activity of young, disruptive people on the street.
The Santa Barbara measures come in the midst of controversy over images of “anti-homeless” spikes on private property in London, which recently went viral across the web, with many labeling such “defensive architecture” methods as inhumane. An online petition on Change.org calling to remove the spikes received over 130,000 signatures.
How can we maintain safety of the streets, while addressing the homeless population that needs help? While many local organizations provide effective outreach and temporary resources, a clear solution necessitates housing and ongoing services for the huge population of mentally ill people. Psychotropic medications are only effective if taken regularly, a regularity that is difficult to expect even of people in a stable condition.
While Santa Barbara police are making the streets clearly more enjoyable for those with security and privilege, our jails will continue to fill with not only the violent and aggravating panhandlers, but also the local men and women whose delusions and illness prevent them from communicating and attending to their distress. We need effective measures to distinguish and appropriately provide for both.