The Santa Barbara City Council decided to extend the safe-shelter program for residents of fire-prone encampments for 90 days at a cost of over $1.24 million during its meeting Tuesday.
The discussion brought ideas, such as a bond measure to fund homeless assistance, that were passed in a separate motion.
The safe-shelter program brought residents from encampments deemed fire hazards into the Rose Garden Inn, where 40 currently reside.
Before Tuesday, the program was set to expire Nov. 1, but it didn’t go as planned. Nonprofit partner City Net is having trouble moving residents from the Rose Garden Inn “bridge housing” to permanent housing — but not for a lack of effort.
There are currently nine program participants with housing vouchers in hand; 15 have obtained identification, and 16 are in progress.
City Net looks at apartment listings every morning to try to secure a lease for those with vouchers.
City Net Program Supervisor Emily Koval said it takes, on average, 97 days for someone to sign a lease once they are document-ready. It takes two to four months to obtain documents and identification.
The Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara has issued 89 Emergency Housing Vouchers, but only 22 vouchers have been applied to leases.
It incentivizes landlords to accept vouchers with $1,500 signing bonuses, $2,000 security deposits and up to $2,000 in mitigation insurance. But the Housing Authority’s executive director and CEO Rob Fredericks thinks landlords want more.
“Money talks with landlords,” he told council members. “If we could increase that signing bonus fee up from $1,500 to $5,000, that would get landlords to say, ‘I’m going to take an extra chance on someone that’s moving from homelessness, knowing that they have the services.’”
The City Council agreed to send the signing bonus idea to its finance committee to find funding.
Discussions Tuesday were less complimentary than those held during the first program update a month earlier — when money wasn’t at risk.
Council members Eric Friedman and Kristen Sneddon, whose districts encompass the adjacent neighborhoods of the Rose Garden Inn, expressed concern about crime in the area.
“It seems out of control of what I think we were led to trust would be contained. And now it seems to be a magnet for other people coming with tents and staying really close in the area,” Councilmember Sneddon said.
Santa Barbara City Police Chief Bernard Melekian said people from other encampments have arrived at the Rose Garden Inn hoping for housing, and he thinks friends of residents may have moved to the area.
In the September 14 meeting, City Net President Brad Fieldhouse said the “vast majority” of disturbances are people not in the safe-shelter program.
Chief Melekian presented data from the surrounding neighborhoods, showing a nearly 50% uptick in homeless-related calls for service since the program launched.
The amount of citations written in the area decreased, including drug-related offenses and theft cases.
“The reality of living in that neighborhood, and for the record I live in that neighborhood, is different than what the data shows in terms of impacts that we’re seeing in terms of thefts and those types of things,” Councilmember Friedman said.
He did not support the extension of the pilot program, and Ms. Sneddon indicated that her support was contingent upon the second vote the City Council took on the agenda item.
The second vote, unanimously passed, agreed to: look at long-term solutions considering funding options for shelter and bridge housing with the Housing Authority, to write a letter to county officials in support of the solutions court, consider increasing voucher incentives, work with the police department to increase patrols, request SB ACT to return with strategies and reinstate wrap for the area.
It also directed the Finance Committee to evaluate a bond measure, increase of funds for the vouchers, increase of funds for police patrol and evaluation of funding for the Vera Cruz Court project (a Housing Authority project delayed because of pandemic-induced costs).
All items were mentioned, some briefly, as conversations about the safe-shelter program ventured into the future.
“Let’s think about a long term plan; let’s stop being reactive,” Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez said. She called the program extension reactive but necessary.
She, along with Mayor Pro Tempore Oscar Gutierrez, said more mental health resources are needed.
The solutions court system is used primarily in North County to rehabilitate offenders with needs such as mental health services.
Mr. Friedman, chair of the Finance Committee, warned the list of requests was a big ask from the city’s fiscal position.
“We have a lot on our plate already,” he said. “It’s going to require fiscal discipline from everybody on council regarding a lot of other items that are not on tonight’s agenda.”
The city is pursuing funding sources in an effort to create more housing opportunities for Santa Barbara’s homeless population.
It is working on an application for a HomeKey grant through the State, which funds master leases and other innovative housing ideas. But Mr. Fredericks said this $2.75 billion of State money isn’t a knockout.
“From the moment you receive the HomeKey funding, the funds need to be expended in eight months, and you have to be fully occupied at that time,” he said. “To take a vacant building and convert it within eight months, it’s very difficult.”
He has eyed vacant buildings for the city’s application but thinks buying a motel that is already outfitted as dwelling units is the best idea.
Project HomeKey also specifies that the structure must last at least 15 years, so pallet homes are not compatible.
A modular home project in partnership with the county called Dignity Moves will establish 33 units sometime around January.
The city and county planned to prioritize homeless people around downtown and the waterfront. Council members asked if Rose Garden Inn residents could be prioritized.
With no clear solution to house the 40 motel occupants apart from vouchers, council members made their decisions.
“I’m very uncomfortable that we don’t have an exit strategy,” Ms. Sneddon said. “But I don’t feel that once we’ve started this that we can stop, until we’ll have another suitable place to go. It would be inhumane.”
Councilmember Meagan Harmon agreed.
“We cannot turn these individuals out on the street at this point. I mean, and not only is that inhumane, but I think it would undo so much of the good work that’s been done,” she said. “It would set us back meaningfully and, it would set us back in terms of the trust that’s been developed between our providers and the homeless individuals.”
Councilmember Mike Jordan, who initially was undecided, also voted in support. He was wary about the slow pace of progress and if the city will be in the same position Jan. 30, when the now-extended contract expires.
Some of the encampments cleared for the program have not regenerated. But Monday night, a small vegetation fire burned by the southbound Highway 101 offramp at Castillo Street — the site of the first safe-shelter program cleanup.