State, federal guidance makes clean up difficult for city
When the coronavirus pandemic hit California, the state Department of Public Health issued a statewide order for cities not to break up homeless encampments for fear of spreading the virus and in the hope that caseworkers could find their clients.
Homeless shelters in Santa Barbara have managed to keep COVID-19 out of their facilities, and the spread among the homeless population hasn’t been of much concern.
However, Santa Barbara residents have noted the trash piling up near fences and open areas along the freeway corridor.
The areas surrounding the U.S. Post Office on Nopalitos Way, Mechanics Bank on Carpinteria Street, Plaza del Mar Park on Castillo Street and the old Santa Barbara Tourist Hostel by the Amtrak station are some of the areas with decent amounts of trash, residents have noted. Parts of Montecito, Bath, Milpas and Garden streets are also affected, especially near onramps and offramps to Highway 101.
Jesse Espinoza grew up in Carpinteria and comes to Santa Barbara’s Eastside on Milpas Street to care for his elderly mother.
“A lot of people really don’t like walking in this neighborhood anymore. They don’t feel safe,” he told the News-Press. “A lot of the seniors that walk out in the park don’t walk in the evening or night because of all the homeless issues.”
Mr. Espinoza said he has seen chairs, dresses, clothes, wood, microwaves, water heaters and even refrigerators tossed out on the streets.
“It’s a safety and a big health hazard, not only to the public but to these people out in the street,” he said. “I ask my mom, ‘Why don’t these people take pride in where they live?’ ”
Rene Eyerly, the environmental services manager who oversees trash collection for Santa Barbara, said the city is exploring options with Caltrans to provide trash collection at the encampments.
“The city has increased collection service provided in all of the business districts and along the waterfront,” she told the News-Press. “There are both additional containers along the high-use areas and supplemental crews working to keep up with the increased use of disposable to-go food containers and the general litter at our beaches, parks and near restaurants. Additional education of the public is also taking place. It is everyone’s responsibility to dispose of trash properly.”
Laura Dubbels, the housing and human services manager for the city, told the News-Press the increase residents may see in trash is because of the federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The city is not clearing homeless encampments until the CDC lifts this guidance and because of that, the trash that results from those encampments has also been difficult to clear due to the inability to access these areas for the necessary actions,” she said.
Ms. Dubbels continued that a point-in-time count is done annually by the county, and since it is typically done in January, the city cannot say if homelessness has increased.
“It is hard to subjectively assess if homelessness has increased, especially during a difficult time such as COVID-19 where encampments are not cleared and may remain more visible, because the visibility of encampments does not always equate to a worsening of more homeless individuals,” she said.
Ms. Dubbels added that homelessness is not a crime in and of itself unless the individual is doing something criminal.
“The city does have a street outreach provider named City Net, who provides outreach in these areas. These efforts will be increased once the COVID-19 CDC guidance is lifted and they are able to more fully assist individuals in getting to more suitable housing solutions,” she said. “COVID-19 has unfortunately added another layer to the difficulties in addressing homelessness. The CDC guidance on how to best prevent the spread of the virus by not clearing the areas the homeless already live in to prevent any dispersing of the virus, also unfortunately prevents the required efforts to help serve homeless individuals by offering case management options and possible movement to other housing alternatives as well.”
Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo said the good news is COVID-19 has not spread among the homeless population despite the city’s fears.
“The Public Health Department at the state level still says, ‘Don’t break up the encampments,’ so that’s why you might see some of the camps enduring,” the mayor told the News-Press. “Under pre-COVID times, Caltrans and Union Pacific would tell them, ‘You have three days to move anything you don’t want us to throw away.’ Now they’re kind of stuck there.”
Jeff Shaffer, the director of initiatives at the Santa Barbara Alliance for Community Transformation, said the encampment order, made because of COVID-19, didn’t necessarily stop the outreach component, but it did create new guidelines for outreach.
“We now have an Eastside team that meets every Friday. We’re just working on our long-term plan to reduce homelessness specifically on the Eastside,” he told the News-Press. “The pandemic created that conversation.”
He added that the homeless population has lost a lot of resources as a result of the closures, so SBACT is doing its best to come up with solutions in the midst of the pandemic.