Santa Barbara Road Trip to Santa Monica Reveals Key Insights on Homeless Outreach

Local leaders get an eyeful on fact-finding quest for more effective strategies, programs

The Milpas Community Association's Rick Feldman speaks Friday about the group's fact-finding trip to Santa Monica while, from left, the MCA's Sebastian Aldana, Alan Bleeker and Sharon Byrne and Santa Barbara City Council members Frank Hotchkiss and Michael Self wait their turn. 

The Milpas Community Association’s Rick Feldman speaks Friday about the group’s fact-finding trip to Santa Monica while, from left, the MCA’s Sebastian Aldana, Alan Bleeker and Sharon Byrne and Santa Barbara City Council members Frank Hotchkiss and Michael Self wait their turn. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

By Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper | Published on 03.20.2011

One week ago, Santa Barbara civic and government leaders got a firsthand look at some proven strategies to deal with homelessness in a seaside city.

The city was Santa Monica, not Santa Barbara, however, and about a dozen people traveled there to meet their counterparts working in Santa Monica’s city hall. Santa Monica has an entire municipal department working to move people into housingfrom the streets, whether the homes be in Santa Monica or elsewhere with family or friends.

The trip was organized by leaders of the Milpas Community Association, which is dedicated to improving life and business along Santa Barbara’s Milpas Street corridor. The group called a news conference Friday to debrief members and the media about their trip, and share what they learned.

All seven Santa Barbara council members were invited, along with Police Chief Cam Sanchez. Ten municipal representatives made the trip: Council members Dale FranciscoFrank Hotchkiss and Michael Self, Community Development director Paul Casey, City Attorney Steve Wiley and representatives from the City Housing Authority and thePolice Department.

Santa Monica has seen impressive results in reducing the number of homeless people living on its streets, said Sharon Byrne, MCA’s executive director. Back in 2005, Santa Monica had a count of 2,500 homeless people.

“They’ve been able to take that count down to 740 this year,” Byrne said. “That’s quite a bit of progress. It made sense to go look at them and what they’ve done.”

Although the two coastal cities have some obvious differences, many similarities exists. Santa Monica has a population of 85,000, and has a large tourist industry centered around its seaside locale. Santa Monica was also finding itself with a large portion of Los Angeles County’s homeless population.

One of the key differences with Santa Barbara is Santa Monica’s large database on its homeless population, updated by police officers, firefighters, outreach workers and social services staff. Santa Monica keeps extensive data on each person. When the city refers a homeless person to a nonprofit service provider, results are expected within 60 days.

Santa Monica spends roughly $2.9 million annually out of its general fund for homeless initiatives in its Human Services Division. By comparison, Santa Barbara spends $537,948 a year for its services, not including the salary of restorative police Officer Keld Hove and the Safe Parking Initiative.

In 2005, Santa Monica expanded its homeless-services staff to four employees from one. The city also has a six-member police unit that does nothing but work with the homeless.

“We always have done quite a bit for a city of our size,” Setareh Yavari, a Santa Monica human services administrator, told Noozhawk last month. “It was about making sure that we stepped back and looked at how effective the work was.”

MCA member Rick Feldman, owner of Santa Barbara Eyeglass Factory at 1 S. Milpas St., had heard anecdotally that Santa Monica had made tremendous progress. When he called Santa Monica’s city hall, he was immediately connected to a homeless-services analyst.

“Try that in Santa Barbara,” he said. “We’ve got probably 15 or 20 agencies that help homeless. We almost have too much help. But call city hall and ask who’s in charge and you won’t get an answer.”

Francisco, chairman of the City Council Subcommittee on Homelessness, said the trip was very insightful for him. He went on a ridealong with Santa Monica’s chief officer from the homeless liasion police force.

Santa Monica has more resources, he said, and the city has about two and a half times the general fund budget of Santa Barbara — with roughly the same population. But some estimates suggest that 10 percent of all of the nation’s homeless live in Los Angeles, and Santa Monica outreach workers estimate that 150 new homeless people arrive in their city each month. In spite of the constant influx, they’ve still made progress.

“That’s an astonishing achievement in my mind,” Francisco said.

“It’s an overall philosophy that says it is not acceptable to be homeless in Santa Monica,” he said. “We need to learn from other jurisdictions. … This is a problem that we can make progress on.”

Hotchkiss recalled a conversation with Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom, who said there had been some contempt for the homeless when he first ran for office in 1999, even though the city is liberal in its politics.

“The approach was not what people wanted,” Hotchkiss said. “Everybody in Santa Barbara wants to help homeless people in a way that really works.”

When Byrne expressed concern about cost, Santa Monica staff told her to look at the outlay for all of what Santa Barbara does already, and vow to spend more smartly.

“It’s really the difference between being reactive and proactive,” added Alan Bleecker, president of the Milpas Community Association and the president and CEO of Capitol Hardware & Building Supplies, 711 N. Milpas St.

“Not everything that Santa Monica is doing takes a lot of money,” said Self, who suggested that performance-based funding would be one approach.

Santa Monica has also adopted ordinances like no selling of alcohol to inebriates, no RV camping, no panhandling in the tourist zones and no feeding homeless in public parks, Byrne said.

Moving forward, Byrne said her organization is looking forward to getting data from the count and survey of the homeless population that was conducted last month by Common Ground Santa BarbaraMayor Helene Schneider said the survey results should be released within the next week or so.

“That’s where you get your baseline,” she said.

“We would like to see the council start putting these things on the agenda,” said Byrne, adding that she would like to have the city of Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara County, as well as the nonprofit community, discuss a way forward.

— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or@NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.