A new program proposed by the Santa Barbara Police Dept. would focus on reintegrating homeless people who commit petty crimes back into society rather than putting them behind bars.

The “restorative policing” program would provide alternative treatments to the mentally ill homeless who commit small crimes, such as public urination. Sgt. Riley Harwood said the population of mentally ill homeless people in Santa Barbara is growing, and the department wants to reverse that trend by providing treatment.

“County jail is not intended, [nor is it] the best way people should be obtaining medical and health services,” Harwood said.

Harwood said he and other SBPD officers are currently undergoing training to work with the mentally ill. The program is being modeled after a similar program used by the San Rafael Police Dept. The restorative policing program would work similarly to treatments for alcohol and drug addicts, aiming to rehabilitate rather than incarcerate them.

“It’s more in the concept stage right now,” Lt. Paul McCaffrey said. “There’s some things we’re doing already, which is just raising awareness of the issue. This restorative policing is not solely a police department issue; it’s dealing with a social problem where outside resources are needed to work together.”

The Police Dept. still needs a place to send the mentally ill homeless for treatment. McCaffrey said the biggest problem with the program is that there is nowhere for these people to go, although a few private proposals have been made.

One of those proposals was made by Gale Franco-Trowbridge and Lynnelle Williams, who both have extensive experience working with the mentally ill homeless through the Salvation Army and other organizations. Their program, WillBridge of SB, Inc., is a nonprofit, faith-based organization that would provide help and shelter rather than jail time for the homeless and may be utilized in conjunction with the police department’s project.

Williams said the WillBridge proposal is the “missing link to the restorative policing program.”

“The police officers will be the gatekeepers,” Williams said. “They will be making the referrals along with the designated mental health outreach worker, and basically, if [the homeless] leave the program prior to whatever the conditions are for their being there … they could risk going to jail.”

The WillBridge house would hold six mentally ill homeless people for stays ranging from one night to three months, Williams said. The proposal suggests that four additional beds be kept available for homeless women, who are at risk of violent and often sexual crimes.

According to the proposal, patients would be treated at WillBridge, with medication if necessary, until they are stable enough to be reintegrated into society or sent to a more structured long-term program for further treatment.

WillBridge is currently looking for a house in the city of Santa Barbara to use. Williams said the house would cost approximately $600,000 to open and about $250,000 annually to run. The house would be funded by government grants, donations and private funding.

McCaffrey said there are many issues, such as zoning and conditional use, to contend with before a house can be chosen for the program.

“Finding a house where you can put 10 people is not an easy thing to do,” McCaffrey said.

Unlike other homeless shelters and hospice houses currently available, Williams said WillBridge would be less structured and designed for short-term use.

“We’ll be working with a lot of the chronically mentally ill homeless, who, because of their psychosis or something, they’ve been fine and all of a sudden they’ve gotten off their medication and then maybe did a petty theft,” Williams said. “There’s no reason for them to be incarcerated. They need to be reprimanded; they need to get back on their medication and get stabilized and become functioning citizens again. So, rather than incarcerate them, they’ll come to WillBridge.”