Housing Authority’s Low-Income Project Near Peabody School a Source of Discord
Although the initial outcry from parents has subsided, WillBridge and city officials hope to keep the dialogue going with three community meetings
Santa Barbara resident Sven Klein was walking with his wife, Jennifer, and their infant daughter hand in hand near the Cabrillo Ball Field when a pleasant walk turned scary.
“A mentally ill homeless woman tried to steal my daughter,” Klein said. “That was a traumatic experience for our family, and it’s something we won’t get over.”
It’s that experience that has partially inspired Klein and his family to speak out against the possibility of establishing a low-income transition house near Peabody Charter School, 3018 Calle Noguera. The Santa Barbara City Council approved the$1.15 million grant to the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara for a project at 2904 State St., but the purpose of the project is yet to be decided.
“Irrespective if this is a transitional home for the formerly homeless and for people who now have employment, at the end of the day I think it is common sense for the City Council to not have any sort of shelter that close to a school,” Klein said.
In late January, the Housing Authority and the City Council approached the measure as business as usual, approving the grant with a 5-2 vote. But Klein said that when the media initially sensationalized the purpose of the project, Peabody parents responded by flooding the Feb. 1 City Council meeting.
“When we heard this type of shelter was one for chronic, drug-abusing homeless, we took action,” he said. “It turns out its intended use may be different and is not really as dramatic as we thought.”
The project was originally slated to provide eight units of housing and supportive services to formerly homeless people under the control of WillBridge, a Santa Barbara nonprofit that helps homeless people find housing.
“The biggest issue was the lack of community involvement — there was no attempt at reaching out; it was business as usual,” Klein said. “You wouldn’t nearly have had the outcry otherwise.”
After hours of public comment at the Feb. 1 meeting, Councilman Randy Rowsesuggested that the Housing Authority host three public meetings with Peabody parents. About 70 days from now, the Housing Authority will come back with a progress report and the City Council will decide whether to lease the property to WillBridge or to low-income renters. The group has since apologized.
“We do feel bad; we will do things differently in the future,” said Skip Szymanski, deputy executive director of the Housing Authority. “We were not trying to sneak this under the radar.”
Lynelle Williams, executive director of WillBridge, said she wasn’t surprised how people were dismayed because of how it was misrepresented by the media, but many people seemed more assured after they explained their plans.
“The people that came to the meeting felt much better about it,” Rowse said. “I was very impressed by the parents who were open-minded and listened.”
Williams said the units would be for those seeking permanent housing and who have graduated from WillBridge’s other two Santa Barbara locations. Prospective residents would have to pass specific criteria, such as being employed or in job training, a background check and not using drugs or alcohol, she said, stressing that WillBridge doesn’t serve sex offenders and that type of clientele.
“It’s a graduate house; it’s not easy to get into,” Williams said. “They have to prove they are ready for independence. It’s a trust factor — they have to be responsible before we will consider letting them go.”
One WillBridge property is closer to Franklin Elementary School, 1111 East Mason St., than the State Street project would be to Peabody. Yet even after further explanation, the location of the school doesn’t sit well with Klein.
“It’s not an appropriate buffer; it only takes one incident,” he said. “Parents spoke out that the recovery process is not a smooth process, some people don’t make it. What if someone has an episode?”
But Szymanski said the Housing Authority serves as another form of protection, with the best interest of the community and offering more control than that of the private sector.
“Once the program’s operation was clarified, there was slightly less concern, at least by people who are looking to understand that there are people in need,” Szymanski said. “These types of facilities are a benefit to society to the extent that we want to accommodate what is best for clients, for people who are served by WillBridge and overall for the people in the community.”
Williams said WillBridge is a trusted entity that treats its clients like family and is nothing close to an overnight shelter.
“Some people have taken one bad experience and put everybody in that one box, and that’s not fair to those who have succeeded and are doing well,” she said. “People need to be willing to accept that things happen to people, (the homeless) could’ve been (handcuffed) by sickness, divorce or natural disaster. Sitting in judgment is not OK.”
Klein said he wasn’t pleased that the city would be using taxpayer money to support a project of this nature in today’s economy.
“I understand these are redevelopment funds that can only be used for affordable housing, but our city, state and federal government is broke and we are spending that on eight units?” he said. “I think we can come up with a more fiscally responsible way to serve the homeless community. It makes no sense.”
Councilwoman Michael Self agreed. Noting that 76 percent of the county’s affordable housing is in South County, she asked, “When is it enough?”
“I think that we as a community should realize how we are being changed with our own tax money,” Self said, added that the Housing Authority projects pay no property tax. “The property was giving low rent to workers in the community who weren’t being subsidized, so now we’ve taken it off the tax rolls.”
But Williams said the project could take the homeless out of jail and end up saving the city money.
“One of our goals was an alternative for people who go to jail for nuisance offenses, such as loitering and panhandling,” she said. “These individuals get ticketed five to seven times and get thrown in jail — an expense to the city.”
Klein said the bigger question in Santa Barbara remains of how to manage the homeless issue that hasn’t been fully addressed.
“You can see the difference in opinion, some say we have got to help out fellow man,” he said. “I agree with the caveat that the more you provide, the more you invite new homeless because it’s a good place to be.”
Self said Santa Barbara’s approach to the problem is wrong. There should be results-based homeless projects that rely on hard data to determine what works and what doesn’t.
“We need more effective programs where (the homeless) are more accountable for their behavior so that we who pay full boat to live here don’t have to put up with that,” she said. “We have some people with bleeding hearts but no brains; we need both to keep us all safe.”
Although Klein admitted a scary event such as the one that happened to his family could make someone less compassionate toward the homeless, he still thinks the decision should be common sense.
“At the end of the day, common sense should prevail; we need a margin of safety around schools,” he said. “It’s paramount that our children are protected.”