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Santa Barbara kills $50,000 plan to curb panhandling

Stung by public criticism, Santa Barbara officials Tuesday killed their $50,000 plan to curb panhandling by rearranging 14 benches on the city’s best-known thoroughfare.

“The more I learned about what we were trying to do, the more questions I had,” Mayor Helene Schneider said. “The intent is a good one, but I’m not sure this is the right method to get there.”

The idea was to turn benches along two blocks of State Street perpendicular to storefronts instead of facing them, as they have for 10 years. Depriving panhandlers of their sweeping views of passersby would make it tougher for them to beg, according to the pilot project’s backers.

Critics saw it as a wacky, wasteful attempt to shoo away the homeless.

At a City Council meeting Tuesday, Faith Merritt, a stay-at-home mom who described herself as “nobody special,” said the $50,000 in redevelopment funds would be better spent providing services for the people who occupy the benches for days at a time.

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“They’re drawn there for attention and for love — and because they need help,” she said.

The council voted 4 to 3 to shelve the idea for at least a year. Meanwhile, members said, they’ll try to find money for an officer to practice “restorative policing” on State Street. They also spoke of finding consultants to design street furniture that would be comfortable for a breather, but uncomfortable for a lengthy sit.

The bench-moving plan was conceived by the Downtown Organization, a business group whose members have become increasingly distressed by a streetscape dotted with sometimes confrontational panhandlers.

“I found myself a lot less likely to go to State Street,” said Bill Collyer, the group’s executive director. Moving the benches was supposed to aid in “making locals and visitors feel more welcome downtown.”

Marck Aguilar, a supervisor for the city’s redevelopment agency, told council members that discouraging prolonged bench-sitting was a question of fairness. The Mission-style benches were placed on the street “so that the community as a whole could take advantage of them, not just a select few,” he said.

Aguilar said the $50,000, which struck many as excessive, was needed to redo brickwork and pour new concrete pads beneath the bolted-down benches. Simply removing them would cost about $3,500, he said.

Neither the city nor the Downtown Organization proposed getting rid of benches —for which Councilman Grant House was grateful.

House, who voted in favor of the plan, praised it as an “attempt to meet the needs of all.”

It was, he said, “a very gentle approach.”

steve.chawkins@latimes.com


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