'Snowbird' Homeless a Santa Barbara Quandary

Times Staff Writer

A century ago, the first wealthy winter visitors to Santa Barbara flocked here from the frigid East, often arriving by steamer and staying at swank hotels such as the Potter, which offered its own racetrack, golf course and polo field.

Arthur Caldwell is a different kind of snowbird. Arriving by Greyhound bus, he found himself a bed for 10 days at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission and considered that a lucky break.

He is one of an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 homeless in the Santa Barbara area, and officials cringe when anybody starts talking about out-of-towners like him. It's one thing to have your own homeless population. But homeless snowbirds make people worry.

It's called the "magnet effect." Any city with warm weather during the winter draws the homeless. For 20 years now, cities in Southern California have debated how nice -- or how unfriendly -- they should be to the homeless. The nicer they are, the theory goes, the more homeless people they attract.

So Santa Barbara historically has walked a fine line. The city now has four state-of-the-art homeless shelters that will be able to accommodate 500 people or so once occupancy levels are raised Monday to the maximum -- the official start of the winter homeless season.

But Santa Barbara also has passed some tough laws over the years to keep the homeless from becoming too visible, especially in such areas as the city's spectacular beachfront or the lucrative upscale shopping areas along State Street.

The city made 1,300 arrests after the passage of a 1979 law that prevented nighttime sleeping in public areas. That law alone earned Santa Barbara the title of most hostile city in the nation for those with no place to live.

In subsequent years, some Santa Barbara merchants began pouring bleach over their garbage to prevent the homeless from eating out of trash bins. In 1984, an effort was made to outlaw eating out of garbage cans, but the proposal was defeated by the City Council.

"If you were to pick one city in the country to be a model of how not to deal with its homeless, Santa Barbara would be it," said Mitch Snyder, a national homeless advocate who planned to bring thousands of homeless protesters to town in 1986.

After being lampooned in "Doonesbury" and widely criticized, Santa Barbara modified its policies that year, permitting some public sleeping and promising more shelters.

The city has delivered in many areas since then, but the homeless Caldwell and others still view it as less than hospitable.

"The consensus among homeless around the country is, 'Don't go to Santa Barbara,' " said Caldwell, 45, who plans to return to Seattle in the spring.

Although some of Santa Barbara's homeless actually come for the winter weather, most are people raised in Southern California who wander from county to county, officials say. One estimate is that the winter homeless visitor population is possibly 10% of the total, and others put it even lower.

"Some people still do come through here and other Southern California cities during the winter," said Hal Onserud, executive director of the Cacique Street Center, one of the city's major shelters. "But they are hardly winter visitors. It's almost a trail of tears."

The Cacique Street Center, operated by the Coalition to Provide Shelter and Support to Santa Barbara Homeless, has an annual operating budget of $1.2 million. But raising money in the current economy is tough.

Apart from the Cacique Street Center, the homeless most often wind up at the Rescue Mission, which has a drug treatment program and maintains a separate 100-bed facility. There also are a Salvation Army shelter and Transition House, a program that serves homeless families with children.

Most of the homeless still sleep outside, many in small encampments known as "jungles" near the city's zoo and along the railroad tracks. The city recently banned overnight parking of RVs, but the county has provided places for some RV families to stay overnight and churches have provided some others.

Michele Wakin is finishing a doctoral thesis in sociology at UC Santa Barbara on survival strategies of the homeless. She says that few make it directly into housing projects, but that RVs often serve as a transition point.

Wakin, who is studying the RV population in Santa Barbara, said that in response to the ban on RVs, many are trying to hide from police by driving around city neighborhoods.

Mayor Marty Blum thinks the city has made progress, but concedes that it is a constant balancing act between compassion toward the needy and a recognition of the fears and feelings of residents and business leaders.

"I think we have pulled things together in the last few years, concentrated our resources," Blum added. "We're not heartless at all. But we know now that this is always going to be a problem. If we push in this city, you have them pop up in another."

Many homeless are on some sort of Social Security disability support, but in Santa Barbara, the typical $700 check lasts for about two weeks of housing a month, leaving many recipients sleeping inside half the time, outside half the time.

"A few people may come here in the winter, but you can't think of them as winter visitors," said Ken Williams, a county social worker who emphasized that he was speaking only for himself. "We make it so difficult for the homeless here that I can tell you with certainty that we export more than we import.

"I've been at this 28 years," Williams added. "In that time, we've lost almost 400 beds just by upgrading some of the old downtown hotels that used to be single-resident-occupancy units for the homeless. We didn't even try to save them."

In 1986, Williams started a small memorial to Santa Barbara's homeless who had died on the streets over the years. He stopped counting in 1997 after small plaques for 73 dead had been placed on a wall at the Salvation Army's Hospitality House. He calls it the Wall of Death.

"Anything we try to do for them just makes a lot of people angry," he said. "To be fair, I'd say part of Santa Barbara has a great heart. The other part is swayed by a fear of the homeless that turns to hatred."

At the Cacique Street Center, where Caldwell sometimes eats his meals, the former New Yorker took a similar view.

"I'm stuck here. There's a lack of services, and rents are awful expensive here," he said. "I'm here for the weather, but then I'll probably be heading back up north."


Times researcher Vicki Gallay contributed to this report.

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