SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Multiple hotel managers in the West Beach area of Santa Barbara say the neighborhood’s homeless population has increased over the past several months, and that some who are struggling with mental illness or addiction have become more aggressive toward locals and visitors.
One manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity, tells NewsChannel 3 that the behavior is unlike anything he has seen in roughly 30 years in the hotel business near the Waterfront. He says bicycle thefts have become routine and multiple hotels have had room break-ins.
Another manager says a man exposed himself to guests at the hotel’s front office.
Several managers and local leaders are involved in a growing email chain detailing the disturbances.
The Santa Barbara Police Department has scaled back on sweeping homeless encampments due to concerns over potentially spreading COVID-19 to new areas of the city. Police did clear a large camp out of Pershing Park earlier this month.
Police have also put fewer suspected criminals in jail due to COVID concerns, which one manager believes is part of the reason why hotels are seeing more concerning run-ins with people on the street. He says those interactions have led to negative feedback from his guests, and he worries their experiences could discourage them from visiting Santa Barbara again.
The Santa Barbara Alliance for Community Transformation (SBACT) organizes the local homelessness response by working with the city, county, local homeless rights advocacy groups and local businesses.
Jeff Shaffer, SBACT’s Director of Initiatives, says that a targeted neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach is in place and can handle the influx of people living on the street. He says teams from different organizations are providing direct outreach, offering shelter and wellness services to those on the street while maintaining consistent contact with them.
“I feel like the foundation is there. And we have a great steering committee,” Shaffer said.
While acknowledging that homelessness is a complex problem and that not everyone will be ready to give up their addiction, Shaffer says that the right approach is “making sure you have a holistic team that can meet people where they’re at, offer those services when needed, because you never know when that person is going to be willing to receive services and you have to be available right away to respond.”
As for the hotel managers, Shaffer says he understands their frustration and is working with them to solve the issue in a compassionate way, without simply moving those who are experiencing homelessness to another place.
“Moving people around and not offering them services during a pandemic where they… don’t have the availability of restrooms, they don’t have the ability of clean water or the same meals, and now you’re moving them around, that’s not going to help their mental health,” he said.
Shaffer says the direct, consistent outreach is only part of the solution, and that Santa Barbara still needs significant space for additional housing and safe parking. He estimates that the city needs roughly 250 new emergency shelter beds, 120 transitional housing units and 200 permanent support housing units.
That being said, Shaffer says SBACT and other organizations are on track to reach their goal of housing 100 new people in 2021.