Byrne Touts Santa Monica’s Homeless Policies
The Milpas Community Association’s (MCA) new executive director, Sharon Byrne, is an enigma. She’s brassy, confrontational and politically savvy with aspirations for the City Council. She knows how to use statistics to make her arguments and never backs down. Yet, when we met at the Cabrillo Ball Field for lunch last week, what did she have tucked in her bag? A slice of birthday cake for the formerly homeless and current ball field regular Ed Mannon.
It turns out not only does this leader of the decidedly pro-business MCA (which has made loitering, panhandling homeless people on Milpas a rallying cry) know Mannon by name, they are actually, and astonishingly, quasi-friends. Indeed, the cake is an acknowledgement of the February birthday the two just happen to share.
Byrne and other MCA leaders, like Alan Bleecker of Capitol Hardware, inaugurated their organization last fall with a press conference focusing heavily on the problems homeless people have caused along Milpas. When George Ied was murdered on Salinas Street, their list of issues broadened to include gang-violence. They held a well-attended march down State Street, had a community-wide meeting to solicit more members, and took a field trip to Oxnard to study that city’s way of dealing with gangs.
Lately, Byrne has been fine-tuning her understanding of homeless policies and her strategy for taking the matter on here. Specifically, she’s been talking to officials in Santa Monica. At the end of January, she and Bleecker participated in Santa Monica’s Point-in-Time count (PIT). The 10 pm to 3 am event (required by the Housing and Urban Development Department) took them into some of the grittier sections of that city to look for homeless campers to tally. Not as rigorous as the upcoming Common Ground Registry Week count, it is nevertheless a “get your feet wet” kind of activity.
“It was one of the most uplifting experiences I’ve ever had,” said Byrne. “First of all, it’s a room of 200 people, and 30 cops, and their watch commander said, this is just two departments.”
Over lunch on the far side of the newly fenced-in ball field—which was devoid of homeless folks, except Mannon—Byrne touted the bang up job Santa Monica had done figuring out how to help “their own” homeless residents rather than every broken life that rolls off the bus with a bed roll. And, she said, the city’s seeing results, having reduced their homeless population from 2,500 in 2005 to 745 in 2010.
“This is what I mean when I say there’s somebody getting results, and it’s humane. They’re not shipping them off to other jurisdictions, or locking them up.”
Byrne grew up in Georgia and moved to Santa Barbara in 1999 when she landed a job in a high tech company here. On her very first visit to town for the job interview, she loved it so much, she vowed she would move here regardless . . . job or no job. She has a 13-year-old she is raising on her own and a lovable German Sheppard dog. She’s paid a salary to honcho the MCA, but says she will run for The Santa Barbara City Council if Randy Rowse doesn’t.
Many in MCA’s membership have chafed over the free lunch Casa Esperanza offers every day, said Byrne. It would be better, she said, if they operated like Santa Monica’s lunch programs for the homeless, which tie the meals to agreements that the person will hook up with a provider within 60 days, to help them get off the streets. (It’s quite a bit like Casa Esperanza’s Transitional Bed program, actually.)
Most MCA members are supportive of Common Ground Santa Barbara, Byrne said. Which is not to say they understand or agree with the 100k Homes philosophy, a philosophy that promulgates the housing first model. What they do have is a deep understanding the concept of efficient use of resources, and caring for chronically homeless street dwellers, with their frequent arrests and ER visits, is not efficient, Byrne said.
“I would say this, they all agree that without data, you’re just shooting pellets on a barn wall. Good Luck.”
Some homeless advocates get queasy when they hear that folks normally unsympathetic to the plight of the homeless tout our upcoming Registry Week as a great way to get data, rather than a great way to house the most fragile among us. The advocates wonder if their interest is just about getting research for their political agenda. Will they use the Common Ground information to rally for more enforcement of anti-camping and anti-tresspassing laws? Are the MCA folks taking part in the Registry Week out of compassion for the individuals or just because they want their neighborhood back?
Jake McGuire, Communications Director of the national 100K Homes campaign, said any volunteer who goes out during Registry Week must sign a confidentiality agreement committing them not reveal any personal information they receive from individuals. One of the questions conservative Council Members, and some MCA members, want answered is how many of Santa Barbara’s homeless are from here, and how many are from other areas. In Santa Monica, the Common Ground survey discovered a large percentage were from other areas, Byrne said, and city officials have structured services in a why that gives priority to their own homeless and not newcomers. How they do that is something Byrne hopes to discover when she returns in March.
MCA will be certainly be pushing for a similar approach. Byrne plans to return to Santa Monica in March with members of our City Council for a fact finding session. And in the meantime, you can expect to see her at South Coast Homeless Advisory Committee meetings, at Registry Week volunteer trainings, and on February 28th, at 4 am, when South County teams gear up with maps, flash lights and clipboards to head out in the dark to locate and survey our homeless, Byrne will be there too. As I said, she is one activist who doesn’t back down.
By Isabelle T. Walker
Photo of Sharon Byrne (at left) and Isabelle Walker by Paul Wellman