While the statewide guidance for California city officials to avoid breaking up homeless encampments during the pandemic is still in place, Santa Barbara city officials have piloted a program to reduce homeless encampments in the community.
Last week, city staff posted several dozens of “No camping” signs around the waterfront area and in Chase Palm Park.
The signs read: “Unlawful area to camp. All unattended items will be removed daily. Items with no apparent value in the area will be taken to the county landfill for disposal. Items of value will be stored by the city and may be claimed during business hours for 90 days by calling 805-564-5558. After 90 days, the items of value will be disposed of.”
René Eyerly, the environmental services manager for the city, said it’s part of “concentrated management” of encampments.
“This (the waterfront) was an area where we were seeing encampments continuing to grow and having more interaction with the public, so that was the decision to try this approach down there for the next 90 days,” Ms. Eyerly told the News-Press. “We are starting to see some increase in numbers in our encampments again.”
While she said it’s challenging to accurately quantify the increase, there’s a concern that as the pandemic and economic challenges continue, the number of unhoused will grow.
“Our work right now is to monitor and evaluate all the encampments that we know of within the city, so our approach is to still be conservative,” Ms. Eyerly said. “It’s a balancing act right now for us to try to make sure that everyone is safe, that the campers are safe and that our broader community is safe as well.”
She said the city has two key evaluators to determine whether an encampment needs to be removed versus maintained: public health and endangerment. Officials watch out for situations such as fire hazards or health hazards due to lack of services.
In addition, outreach for services and shelter is an important component in cleaning up around encampments.
If the signs are successful, Ms. Eyerly said staff will likely try this approach in other areas with encampments.
“Prior to the pandemic, we were on a path, I would say, of good encampment management, again in partnership with housing and services, trying to address that broader issue of why people are living in camps in our community,” she said.
Once a COVID-19 vaccine is distributed throughout the community and businesses can reopen like normal, Ms. Eyerly said staff will return to that “normal” encampment management.
“I know this is a difficult time and it’s a difficult topic,” she said. “I think patience and compassion for our whole community is really important right now.
“We’re trying this new approach and we’re cautiously optimistic that this will be a good balance, but there’s obviously a lot more work to do.”
Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo also provided a statement on the efforts to reduce homeless encampments throughout the city.
“The city is committed to helping our homeless residents get into shelter or supportive housing, and off of the streets and out of public spaces,” she said in a statement to the News-Press. “These encampments require a lot of work and I ask everyone to be patient as we work to solve one of the city’s most complicated challenges.”