The Santa Barbara City Council unanimously voted Tuesday to proclaim the existence of a local emergency due to human encampments in fire prone areas that pose hazards to the community.
Furthermore, the council members voted to proclaim a shelter crisis. To house individuals living in fire prone areas, they directed city staff to return in three weeks with the option of a hotel for CityNet to master lease.
As a backup, the council voted to have a safe encampment shelter in the Castillo/Carrillo Commuter Lot in downtown Santa Barbara. An example photo of an encampment shelter from Los Angeles was presented, and showed tents spaced apart in white squares on the pavement.
“There are no easy answers here,” Councilman Eric Friedman said. “(We need to) really look at this from the residents’ standpoint who all live here. We want to feel safe, we want to address these fire issues and we really want to get those who need mental health services and addiction services into the services they need. It’s the least worst plan I can think of…We don’t have the option to not act anymore.”
The previous meeting at which the council members discussed a temporary shelter proposed putting these tents in a parking lot, providing a “safe encampment shelter” with wraparound services, 24/7 security, adequate space, case management and more. However, in Tuesday’s meeting, city staff proposed a hotel master lease, even though no specific hotels have approved a lease or been proposed.
That being said, the council unanimously supported a hotel for the space, and made it a priority to secure one over the parking lot options. The service providers and city staff said the hotel can provide what most encampment shelters cannot: full utilities, privacy, beds, adequate space, livability, easy maintenance, privacy and comfort. Most importantly, they said a hotel is the best option for transitioning the individuals into permanent housing.
The City Council agreed that choosing the hotel option would be “throwing good money after good,” rather than the encampment shelters, which some agreed is “throwing good money after bad.”
Furthermore, the estimated cost of a safe shelter according to city staff would be $1.25 million, while the estimation for a hotel master lease is $1.6 million. On top of that cost, the fire prevention efforts would cost $65,000; the emergency services, streets and police would cost $36,000; and the service contractors would cost $85,000. The effort totals out to between $1.4 million and $1.8 million, according to city staff estimations.
“To me, it (a hotel) is unequivocally worth the additional cost,” Councilwoman Meagan Harmon said. “It’s clear from the service providers’ conversations they’ve had and comments they’ve made in public comment. This is how we end up with the best long-term outcome for our unsheltered neighbors.”
Ms. Harmon opposed the Castillo/Carrillo Commuter lot as a backup, however, citing that “there is already an incredible lack of trust in that location, specifically related to lack of notice for city projects.” Yet, staff said the commuter lot would provide outdoor shade, proximity to public transportation and the fact that the individuals wouldn’t be traveling far from their current encampments if the shelter was in that lot.
Mayor Cathy Murillo proposed the Santa Barbara Airport economy parking lot as the backup, which was another recommendation for staff. The pros of the lot would include adequate space, water, electricity, distance from residential areas and proximity to a convenience store.
On the other hand, though, both service providers and council members shared concerns with the lack of engagement with the City of Goleta that’s been conducted thus far. While the city owns the airport property, city staff said there hadn’t been much communication with Goleta.
“It feels a bit to me like we’re sort of just moving the problem to someone else’s backyard,” Ms. Harmon said.
In addition, there were worries with moving the homeless individuals far from where they currently reside, which is mostly the transportation corridor downtown. Councilman Mike Jordan said he was “really sensitive to the erosion that takes place over distance,” which was met with agreement from other members of the council.
Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon opposed the tent shelters — like the example referenced in Los Angeles — entirely, saying, “The asphalt, black top, tent and crowded situation doesn’t seem appealing to me. It doesn’t seem like it will actually address the problem of bringing people into services…I really can’t see investing a million dollars in tents.”
Santa Barbara city staff now has three weeks to figure out if there’s one or multiple hotels that will approve a master lease for 35 units. If not, the solution will likely be a safe encampment shelter in the Castillo/Carrillo Commuter Lot. Service providers pointed out that the hotel option has the highest chances of success.
“When you’re looking at the data, our best practices with sanctioned encampments as a whole pale in comparison to the pallet homes or bridge housing success rates,” said Jeff Shaffer, the director of initiatives for SBACT. “That’s why we really rallied behind this bridge housing proposal, both for local success, and also for how, across the U.S., there’s more movement toward this being successful than there is for sanctioned encampments.
“To choose between being at a commuter lot in a tent in 100 degree weather or being in a hotel room with the care provided there — it just makes sense.”
Public commenters were divided. Some emphasized concerns with “dehumanizing” conditions of encampment shelters. Some starkly opposed any shelters in the downtown core, citing “disdain for the business community.”
Mr. Jordan addressed what he referred to as “frankly hideous” emails he has received regarding the relocation of the homeless individuals, saying, “It’s as if laws don’t exist and we can simply do what we want with ‘these people.’ Those trifling documents like the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act aren’t really in place to protect the ‘haves’ (those who have things) among us — they are there fundamentally to protect the ‘have nots.’”