The Natural Cafe owner complains about aggressive misconduct; neighboring businesses agree on some of his points
Recent interviews with restaurant/bar owners and managers on lower State Street reveal support for some but not all allegations of misconduct by homeless people made by the owner of The Natural Cafe.
In a small sampling of half a dozen businesses, some said they saw evidence of illegal drug use and outdoor urination similar to what Kelly Brown, owner of The Natural Cafe, said occurred outside his restaurant at 508 State St.
But no one said they have encountered the aggressive panhandling described by Mr. Brown. Nor have they experienced problems with transients using their restrooms to bathe in their part of downtown Santa Barbara.
Clay Holdren, whose restaurant Holdren’s Steak and Seafood, sits next door to The Natural Cafe at 512 State St., says things have only gotten better since the downtown promenade was created during the COVID epidemic.
“It’s cleaner and safer than it’s been in the last 10 years,” he said. “There’s not a lot of panhandling on our street.”
Sean Bayly, manager of Night Lizard Brewery, 607 State St., agreed. “I haven’t noticed any aggressive action,” he said.
And Gina Rodriguez, a supervisor at Patxi’s Pizza, 515 State St., said the only time she’s seen homeless people near her restaurant become aggressive is when people from other businesses tell them to leave.
Laura Knight, owner of Pascucci’s Italian Restaurant, 509 State St., across the street from The Natural Cafe, said no transients use her restaurant’s restrooms because they posted signs stating their restrooms are reserved for those who eat there, not the general public.
Mr. Bayly said his staff have made it clear to the local homeless that they are not to use their restrooms and that they have complied.
Ms. Rodriguez said she’s seen evidence of illegal drug use nearby Patxi’s, claiming to have spotted pieces of aluminum foil on the ground used by drug users to smoke methamphetamine or heroin.
“You could tell something’s going on,” Ms. Rodriguez said.
She said she had not personally witnessed anyone in the act of using, however.
She also reported seeing signs of urination by homeless people who sleep inside their outdoor patio. She said she’s seen puddles of pee there and near their fence.
Mr. Bayly said he hasn’t seen such puddles, but can smell the stench of urine when he walks up and down State Street.
“You may not see it happening, but the nose knows it,” he said.
Estimates of the number of homeless in the area ranged from a few to a lot.
Ms. Knight said more homeless congregate a few blocks north where there are several vacant storefronts, including a former Rite-Aid. And the manager of a restaurant in the 400 block of State Street said large groups of homeless gather across the street near the 99 Cents Only Store.
But Mr. Holdren said that’s not the case on the 500 block, where “there are a few homeless people.”
Ms. Knight said more homeless were there before the Promenade was built, when they would lounge on outdoor benches and beg passers-by for money. Those benches have been removed, she said.
Those homeless who still roam the 500 block don’t hang around, she said. “They tend to keep walking,” she said. And if they don’t, there are more police on hand “to keep them moving.”
“I think it’s way better than it was before the Promenade was built,” Mr. Holdren said. “We’ve had way less problems since it came alive.”
Before then, homeless people outside his restaurant used to throw silverware and beer cans at him, he said, and his kids would not go outside. “Now they go outside to eat lunch and dinner.”
In a separate interview, Santa Barbara Mayor Randy Rowse repeated his statement to the News-Press that some things have gotten better on State Street while some things have not.
“Yeah there are a lot of problems, but we’ve got programs in line: street cleaning, lighting, patrols,” Mayor Rowse said. “Obviously things are not perfect, but things are also not horrific. It’s not Calcutta.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Mr. Brown of The Natural Cafe said he agreed with the mayor about that. But he stuck to his guns about his restaurant being besieged by assertive transients, and he remains determined to shut down his restaurant after 30 years in part because of it. He also said he’s had “private conversations” with other restaurateurs who have experienced similar problems but do not want to come forward.
But most of all, he stressed that he’s only been talking about “the criminally homeless” — those who break the law by urinating, drinking alcohol or using illegal drugs outdoors, and who act out by aggressive panhandling and invading his restrooms.
“I have no problem with homeless people” in general, he said.
Robin Elander, executive director of Downtown Santa Barbara, said some businesses have shared that they have experienced issues, “but most have shared that issues related to homelessness and or drug activity have been significantly worse in the past and they have seen improvements.
“Issues like these are common in any urban environment,” she said. “If any business or member of the public witnesses or experiences something criminal, they should definitely call the police as well as work with the Downtown Organization to assist with mitigating issues.”
As for Mr. Brown, she said, “We are going to miss him and hope he will change his mind, but we wish he would have reached out sooner for support for the issues he was having.”
The Downtown Organization of Santa Barbara has processes to assist with getting resources to people in need as well as mitigating issues with business owners experiencing challenges, she said.
“We have several mechanisms to address issues, none of which to my knowledge the owner of Natural Cafe took part in over the past two years, though I wish he would have so we could have supported him. I have reached out to him directly but have not heard back.”
Regarding the number of homeless people on Santa Barbara streets and throughout the county, she said that, similarly to downtowns across the nation, downtown Santa Barbara has its own challenges, “but ours in comparison to other cities are actually small. Our county has approximately 1,962 homeless individuals experiencing homelessness in Santa Barbara County as of February 2022 from the countywide point in time count. In comparison, Los Angeles County has 69,144 that were counted at the same time in February.”
Sarah Clark, the city’s downtown parking and plaza manager, said The Natural Cafe “has been a fixture downtown for years, so it’s unfortunate that they’ve decided to close their State Street location. Our goal is to create a safe, inviting downtown district where our local businesses can thrive. To that end, we work closely with the downtown business community to understand the challenges they face.
“Downtown Parking staff, including the Downtown Ambassadors, often issue warnings and work directly with the homeless population to try to discourage illegal or inappropriate behavior in the Promenade,” she said.
The issue of homelessness is an extremely difficult and frustrating problem, not least for the people experiencing it, Ms. Clark said, adding that the city coordinates closely with a variety of service providers to try to connect the city’s homeless residents with the services they need, including shelter and housing.
Jonathan Castillo, chief regional officer for the PATH homeless shelter, said the impacts of homelessness on State Street “are certainly not new, but there simply still are not enough places for people to seek shelter.”
He stressed that the criminal behavior of some individuals “should not be used to attribute all safety issues to people experiencing homelessness.”
The pandemic and the ongoing housing crisis have resulted in an increase in the unsheltered population, Mr. Castillo noted.
“Shelter availability in Santa Barbara is severely lacking,” he said. “We know that because recent Point in Time count data showed that there are over 500 unsheltered people in the city. PATH and all the other service providers that we partner with are doing the best we can with the resources available. We need more outreach services and need more interim housing.
“PATH understands the impacts of the large unsheltered population on the community, and we understand the harsh realities unsheltered people face every day. That is why we need to pursue these short-term solutions now and work toward the long-term solution of more housing.”