City continues to monitor population amid stay-at-home order
As Santa Barbara residents follow the most recent stay-at-home order, some locals don’t have a home at which they can stay.
To prevent further spread of the growing number of COVID-19 cases, CDC and state guidance advises cities against breaking up encampments or encouraging movement.
In November, the city put up “No camping” signs near the waterfront to reduce the amount of encampments in public places.
While the effort proved to be effective, the city is not planning to put up any more signs.
City Environmental Services Manager René Eyerly told the News-Press that Santa Barbara is allowing those experiencing homelessness to hang tight in their encampments for a few reasons.
“We’d like to get through the new stay-at-home order and wait until we have a better idea of how the vaccinations are being rolled out,” she said. “As you can imagine, our shelters are quite full right now, so there’s not a lot of beds available for the campers either.”
Homeless and unhoused individuals are set to receive their vaccinations in Phase 1B Tier 2 of the rollout, which is estimated to occur between early February 2021 and mid-March 2021.
While Ms. Eyerly said she isn’t sure of the strategy that will be used to vaccinate the unhoused, she said she imagines it will be coordinated through County Behavioral Wellness.
But she said there’s not a whole lot the city is able to do right now because of the CDC guidance and the pandemic. These days, the city monitors and cleans encampments daily, along with helping individuals consider services.
“We’ve had a few occasions over the last few months where we have needed to remove camps, primarily in our creeks or waterways because of the imminent health hazard,” Ms. Eyerly said. “The primary piece we’re doing right now is continuing to monitor them and interact with them.”
From city rangers to fire personnel and police to CityNet and other nonprofits, people work together to manage encampments, control the trash buildup, install port-a-potties and ensure safety.
Typically in January, the city does a “Point in time” count, which can tell city staff a lot about the number of people unhoused and dictate the amount of services and resources needed.
But due to COVID-19, the city has had to postpone the count for this year, and the new date has not been determined.
One of the more recent statistics by SB ACT reported three neighborhoods that needed extra homelessness resources and services, including the waterfront, State Street and the Eastside.
According to last fall’s count, there were 300 individuals experiencing homelessness that were located in those neighborhoods. The total number of homeless people in the city was estimated to be 800 at that time.
In addition, because of the pandemic, Ms. Eyerly said she wouldn’t be surprised if the number has risen.
“Given that we’re in a major economic downturn and there’s been so many people we know who have lost their jobs, it would not surprise me if our numbers have increased and they increase over the next year until we have more economic recovery,” she said.
She added, though, that the number of encampments and homeless people may also seem more obvious because of the lack of any other activity in Santa Barbara.
“There is a lot of work being done to monitor and work with those experiencing homelessness, given the constraints we have because of the guidelines,” Ms. Eyerly said. “We might not be seeing as much movement as we could because of this pandemic, but there definitely is a large investment and planning going on to be able to comprehensively try to tackle issues of homelessness.”
Mayor Cathy Murillo told the News-Press that she can “only ask people to have patience during this difficult time of COVID-19 constraints.”
“I know it’s hard for our residents and business owners to see encampments in the railroad corridor or the highway corridor and I have patience for that,” she said. “The pandemic does indeed limit our ability to clear out camps. We do our best in terms of trash cleanup and case management of this population of homeless individuals.”
Some residents may have noticed an increase in encampments at De la Guerra Plaza downtown. Mayor Murillo said CityNet outreach workers have made contact with the people in the plaza, and they are, in fact, allowed to access City Hall’s first floor.
“At City Hall, we keep the first floor open with a water fountain, a restroom and hand sanitizer. We did not want to lock the doors, not even under a pandemic. This is a humane action on our part,” she said. “So we are always monitoring and trying to manage the population of folks who hang around City Hall.”
In addition, she said she has heard complaints about the Highway 101 onramp near the Department of Motor Vehicles, at 535 Castillo St., but added that environmental services told her city crews are going there on Monday.
On Friday, there were around seven encampments at De la Guerra Plaza.
Vanessa, an unhoused individual camping on the plaza, told the News-Press that the police are helpful, but not as quickly as some may need.
“Help is kind of slow,” she said. “There’s people waiting. It (the pandemic) is not good for anyone.”
Another woman, who asked to not be named, said city leadership and law enforcement leadership have been “awesome in this,” but some of the “less higher-ups” have not been.
“Most of the officers are OK,” she said. “It’s just a few that have it in for the homeless, I guess.”
She referenced a situation where a man she is camping with, who chose to go by “D,” attempted to use the first floor City Hall facilities and was told he could not by two police officers. However, she said Mayor Murillo told them they could use the floor.
Luckily, the unhoused individual has housing solidified — she just has to wait for construction to finish up.
“The people who are doing the most wonderful job are most of the business owners,” she said. “It’s really insane because COVID made them understand. They’re right there with us.
“For a long time, we were all equal, we were all out of a job and we all needed money.”
While the city is unable to provide more services and resources, nonprofits and other organizations have been providing meals to the homeless population.
Denise Rodman, the church business administrator for First Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara, told the News-Press that the church is supporting the Alameda Park program by providing a meal once a month, and continues to be a partner church for Freedom Warming Center.
In addition, the church provides a monthly meal to Transition House, but Ms. Rodman was not sure if the program was able to continue during COVID-19. First Presbyterian Church also remains a Safe Parking location.
Santa Barbara City Council member Meagan Harmon’s district, District 6, includes downtown State Street, and many of the areas experiencing high homeless populations.
“Addressing homeless issues during the pandemic has been an incredible challenge — first, because close contact with individuals is difficult, and that contact is necessary for effective case management, and second, because the CDC has given COVID guidance that dictates safe procedures for engaging with homeless encampments that limit the actions that can be taken,” she told the News-Press.
However, Ms. Harmon mentioned SB ACT dedicating resources, along with meeting with the State Street Regional Action Plan, which works to address vagrancy issues and homelessness in the downtown core. She said that CityNet has been key in aiding and ameliorating homelessness in Santa Barbara, and Project RoomKey has helped high-risk individuals stay safe during COVID-19 in motel rooms.
“In my neighborhood, I have noticed an increase in individuals suffering from substance abuse disorder and/or struggling with mental health, though my experience is purely anecdotal,” Ms. Harmon said. “Still, along with housing, I believe it is vitally important that we prioritize mental health and drug counseling in our homeless response services.”
She said a difficult issue that comes with addressing homelessness during the pandemic is the dueling safety implications in both allowing encampments to remain and removing them. However, she said that the city must prioritize following public health guidance to get control of the pandemic sooner, therefore allowing reopenings and the solving of this issue.
Ms. Harmon said she gets reports from State Street business owners “very regularly” regarding the vagrancy issues they see, and she’s also gotten increased feedback on open and visible drug use, “which is incredibly troubling.”
“We are increasing our law enforcement presence on State Street and will continue with case management outreach in the area in response,” Ms. Harmon said.
Residents can report encampments online, whether they pose a hazard or not, and city staff encourages residents to utilize the tool to help them monitor the homeless population until they can intervene again. Residents can both report encampments and report a homeless individual in need at https://formstack.io/8317F.
“Homelessness is one of the greatest challenges of our time, and that so many of our neighbors find themselves without a place to lay their heads represents one of government’s greatest institutional failures,” Ms. Harmon said. “In many ways, this pandemic has caused us to reassess our priorities — homelessness, I believe, will be chief among them.
“The need to truly, effectively and finally address homelessness will surely take center stage in the months and years to come.”