About Sharon Byrne

About Sharon Byrne Sharon Byrne found herself unwittingly thrust into municipal and political issues when she took a sabbatical from her corporate career, and moved to West Downtown in late 2008, a neighborhood in serious decay. She helped engineer a major turnaround there working with engaged neighborhood women. She served on the Franklin Neighborhood Center Advisory Committee, and the Neighborhood Advisory Council. She is the executive director for the Milpas Community Association, and currently serves on the Advisory Boards for the Salvation Army Hospitality House and Santa Barbara County Alcohol and Drug Problems. She is a former Deputy Director of Common Cause in California, and has worked on several ballot initiatives locally and at the state level. Her education in engineering and psychology gives her an unusual mix of skills for working on quality-of-life, public safety, and public policy issues.

Author Archive | Sharon Byrne

Ballot Initiatives This Election: Surprisingly (Or Not) Unpalatable

By Sharon Byrne

ballot-measureCalifornia offers ballot initiatives as a route to direct democracy, and it is one of the things I both love and hate about this state. I love it because it gives voters a chance to enact legislation should their legislators prove too squeamish or self-interested to do their jobs. I am thinking of 2010’s Prop 20 to redraw state and congressional district lines using a non-partisan citizens’ commission, as that exercise was counter to sitting elected officials’ interest in being able to pick their voters and thus stay elected.

On the flip side, ballot initiatives can be complicated, heavy-handed, and deceptive. Prop 63 in 2004 promised acute care for the most severely mentally ill. Billions of dollars later, it’s funding conferences and glossy brochures, while mentally ill homeless individuals roam the streets. The Compassionate Use Act fooled many Californians into thinking they were allowing dying cancer patients to use marijuana for pain relief. They had no idea they were passing a toe-hold to drug legalization.

So I hesitate with ballot initiatives. I want to know who’s funding them, who wrote them, where they came from and what they really do. Succinct information is surprisingly hard to come by. We get deluged with hyperbole by the “yes” and “no” camps, but it is a hard sell to the average voter to make a careful, thoughtful analysis that takes in all the nuances on a given initiative. If facing multiple ballot initiatives…well, it might be easier mentally to just throw in the towel.

This election, we have a couple of initiatives that sound great, but give pause – S and P. Let’s deal with S first.

Full disclosure: I am the parent of a child that attends SBCC as a dual-enrollment student through the Santa Barbara High School. My daughter has taken classes at SBCC since the 8th grade. I am a huge fan of that program. I live next door to an SBCC student, and another lives behind me. These 3 kids grew up here.

Over the past 4 years, longtime Latino families have moved out of this neighborhood as rents have risen. Those homes now host SBCC kids, and I’ve met several of them over time. Late-nite parties have necessitated those meetings. These kids are all Euros or Brazilians. I often hear German, French, Portuguese and Swedish spoken on a street that used to host mostly Spanish speakers.

Someone posted photos on the Santa Barbara View recently of all the foreign co-eds now living in the lower Westside, another neighborhood that used to be dominated by Latino families.

I’ve heard the official numbers for foreign enrollment at SBCC, but it doesn’t jive with what I see in the community. And the rental squeeze is definitely on. These kids are living 8-10 to a house that formerly housed 8-10 Spanish-speakers, but I guess the college kids pay much higher dollar.

When SBCC proposed Measure S, I internally balked before I’d even heard much about it. The fallout from Deltopia, the takeover of parts of downtown causing the rental squeeze, the partying, trashing and dumping in neighborhoods by SBCC students – things are seriously out of balance between SBCC and the community. Forcing homeowners to pay the school more money to serve an increasingly foreign population – no. I particularly don’t like the college’s answer for the problems of poor student treatment of neighborhoods:

“Once they’re off campus, they’re not our responsibility.”

Not so. Many college towns in this country have successfully pushed campus administrations to significantly improve student behavior in the community. That’s responsible citizenship, and college administrations should be first in line to demonstrate that quality. After all, they’re educating our future citizenry.

As it stands, I don’t feel there’s enough ‘city’ focus at SBCC, so I won’t be voting for S.

Measure P has a similar hesitation factor for me. Fracking Ban? Sign me up. That was easy. There’s simply too much data now about fracking harms that you ought to be very wary when it turns up at your doorstep. But Measure P keeps getting undressed as a huge overreach. The county liability factor with vested rights and existing wells just keeps swirling. This seems to be a Get Oil Out Initiative, which is fine. Just say that’s what you’re up to. Don’t dress it up as one thing, when what you want to do is something else entirely. For many in the campaign industry, that’s good business. Say whatever you have to in order to get the win. Secure the toe-hold. Push for as much as you can. Initiatives are time-consuming and expensive for those wagering them. So initiatives like these ‘aim for the moon’.

For the voters, though, the feeling of being duped leaves a very sour taste, and diminishes our willingness to embrace future ballot initiatives, good and bad. Ultimately yesterday and today’s ballot initiative proponents are screwing future proponents by generating increasing voter scrutiny and distrust, so overreach and masking is really not smart long-term politics. It just makes it easier for voters to say no.

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Milpas on the Move – Autumnal Happenings

Weekly column by Sharon Byrne

It’s cooling down from the desert-inferno temps of a couple of weeks ago. The days are getting shorter. The kids are back in school. Pumpkin is the new black. My mail-in ballot is sulking on my counter, awaiting my attention.

And all of that can only mean one thing:

It’s Autumn, my favorite time of year, and a time of fun family-friendly events. Coming up first is the McTeacher Night at the Milpas McDonald’s. On October 20th, starting at 5 PM, Franklin Elementary will be hosting families as a fundraiser. The following day, on October 21st, Notre Dame School families will take it over. This is a cool fundraiser concept: the teachers work as restaurant ‘staff’, the families all come out for dinner, and a portion of the night’s proceeds go to the school. Franklin has had a long, warm relationship with the Milpas McDonald’s, thanks primarily to an amazing principal in Casie Kilgore. The parent-level participation at Franklin has grown in spades under her leadership. Franklin’s McTeacher night tends to be the biggest in the city, according to McDonald’s managers, a testament to the support for this school in the neighborhood.

The Eastside Gets A “Y”: A new YMCA is opening in the home of the old Primo Boxing at Haley and Quarantina. The grand opening is October 20th from 1-6 PM. Memberships are expected to be very affordable, as the facility is catering to the immediate area. They’ll have fitness classes and equipment onsite. The YMCA is also looking to coordinate youth sports leagues at the nearby Ortega Park. As we learned from the Milpas Healthy Community Initiative this summer, families in the area are hungry for health and fitness resources, so the timing of the arrival of the “Y” is perfect!
Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 11.00.58 AM[1]
And now for some OUTDOOR fun and exercise for the whole family: Open Streets returns October 25th 10 AM to 4 PM. Get your bike, skateboard, roller blades and walking shoes and come out to have fun while you exercise. This year features a 5k “Run Wild” from the zoo, and more activities and vendors.

The 2.2 mile route runs along Cabrillo from the Bird Refuge to Anacapa St, and is closed to traffic so as to make maximum use of the open street for fitness and fun. They’re looking for additional volunteers, so if you’re interested go here.  Incentive: they have a post-party after the event to celebrate! The event is produced by COAST – the Coalition for Sustainable Transportation.

SBOS_volunteer_trio[1]The Milpas Halloween Trick or Treat: 2-5 PM on Halloween. Send your trick-or-treaters, because we do it up on Milpas! The merchants love giving out candy, Alpha Thrift puts up great decorations, and the great crew from the Don’s Riders at Santa Barbara High School love taking over the lot next to Super Rica to greet the little Halloweeners on the route. We need volunteers to blow up balloons and place them along the route, and also to help families across the crosswalks, so if you’re interested, email info@mcasb.org.


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Under The Overbearing City

By Sharon Byrne

City_SealI’ve spent a lot of time with the city lately. There were a few bright moments, like SBPD / Public Works/ Caltrans hyper-fast response on an encampment, and the bust of the RV meth and prostitution ring near the Nopalitos Way Post Office – great work from SBPD. The Architectural Board of Review went for the Yes We Can! Project, so we’re about to start turning our trash cans into art projects.

But other experiences… rankle. Sometimes, the city and its advisory boards can take on Dark Overlord tendencies. Like the way an irritated TSA agent can hold you from making your flight, sometimes government over-reach becomes over-bearing. Anyone who has ever tried to get anything through the city’s planning process can relate.

Attempting to navigate the city’s process for getting special event banners on Milpas:

“Banners are illegal. Not allowed. Besides, we don’t feel this artwork represents the newly emerging identity of the Milpas area.”

-       Sign Committee to the team responsible for the newly emerging identity of the Milpas area.

At the same hearing:

“Why don’t you do flags on poles, like they do on State St?”

Because the city doesn’t invest money on Milpas like they do on State St? Someone has to pay for those flagpoles and flags.

Oh, guess that would be us.

We suspect that drivers attempting to read small flags posted under a large tree canopy on the far side of a 5-lane road while driving 30 mph in traffic will generate accidents. Lots of them.

Sign Committee retort:

Well overhead signs (banners) would cause way more accidents…

Apparently Caltrans is just a bunch of fools then because they post highway signs overhead, rather than on cute little flags with inscrutable art by the side of the freeway.

The Taste of Milpas

“Wow. You did all this with just businesses and non-profits? That’s amazing! What did your city do to help you?”

-Neighborhoods USA judges, during the Neighborhood of the Year competition in Eugene, OR. We competed against several city neighborhood departments that have implemented amazing programs in their communities.

What did our city do to help make the Taste of Milpas a success?

Cue the crickets.

Wait…. The city hung our Taste banner last year, and that was a big shot in the arm for the community. This year, we can’t get through the city’s planning process to do same. Though the city allows banners for some of its parks and rec programs.

And the beat cops came through. They made darned sure Milpas was clear of problems during the Taste, and they brought hordes of wonderful PAL and Explorers teens with them to volunteer.

What happened those community beat cops? Gone. This is how it unfolded:

  1. “I’ve been reassigned. Wojo is now your beat officer until the end of the year.” Officer Gutierrez
  2. “I am actually the director for PAL right now…” Officer Wojo
  3. “Officer Reyes will be filling in on the Eastside.” Sgt. Harwood. Officer Reyes is the Westside Beat Officer. So now he’s covering an area formerly covered by 3 officers? Hope he’s taking his vitamins!
  4. Chief Sanchez to City Council: “We’re working on making some new hires, one of whom will help fill the coordinator space. We’re getting there, and we hope to get back to the four (beat coordinators).”

Cue Judy Garland singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. Doncha’ love how the community is the last one to find out their community police are gone? Well, technically, the City Council was the last to know.

Curious: Why is State St getting $150,000 of taxpayer money for rent-a-cops while we lose community-based policing?

Permits for the Taste of Milpas:

CA Dept. of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC):

The area needs to be enclosed and fenced with ID checks for alcohol sales. Hire security guards.


Everything ABC said, and put out trash bins. Your stage might need a building permit. (be very afraid)


“Required: a fire lane 20 ft wide to be able to close off the Ortega dead-end.

That dead-end is about 30 ft wide. Losing 20 ft would make it quite the skinny venue. No one over 1 ft wide admitted? Fire backed off this requirement as long as we could meet this one:

A gate at the back needs to be opened, and manned during the event in case people need to get out during emergency.

Conflicting direction from that given by SBPD and ABC.

Public Works:

Pay $155 for temporary no-parking signs you post. Rent and set up your own traffic control equipment.

SBFD: You also need to post 2A10BC (size) fire extinguishers every 75 feet on the block.


I know the city has to protect itself, and make sure we don’t do crazy stuff like put on pyrotechnic festivals in drought-parched shrubbery fields. I get it. Some city employees are quite helpful, while rolling their eyes over the increasingly onerous regulations. I wish the city put more thought into their value-add, but ultimately, the city has every businessperson’s fantasy: an absolute, ironclad monopoly.

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The Darker Side of Aging

By Sharon Byrne, as featured in the Santa Barbara Sentinel

When I was little, we often visited our UK relatives. Grandma Byrne lived in a Home for the Aged, as Brits call them. She had a nice flat, with a parakeet, and her own furniture. The Home took them round to the shops, and on outings. She was well looked after, especially given it was government-run.

But that’s Europe for you – they take care of you from cradle to grave over there.

By contrast, the American system of care for the elderly is a bit of a crapshoot. There are good facilities, to be sure, but there are some awful ones too. Lest you think I am talking about some dreadful state-run facility for destitute elderly, egregious instances of elder abuse also occur in private facilities, the kind you pay a lot of money for.

It’s an old joke here that Santa Barbara is for the newly-wed and nearly-dead, but there’s some truth to the adage, as there are quite a few senior living communities here. The climate is gentle on older bones, and the scenery stunning. Senior living options include:

1. Independent Living
2. Assisted Living
3. Skilled Nursing Care

These are fairly self-explanatory, and the cost goes up as you move down the list. Assisted living facilities are not inexpensive, with some here running at $5,000 per month. That doesn’t include extras: hospital beds, wheelchairs, diapers, medications, bedding, and additional care-givers.

Senior living facilities aren’t charities. They’re a business, so their job is to generate revenues and minimize expenses. They must market themselves, and the brochures for some of these places look terrific. Piano in the main room, activities, gourmet meals – they sound a bit like resorts. But the reality can be quite different. Some facilities draw clients by advertising that they have an RN on site, but the staff are hourly workers without nursing skills, and the RN is never there. So who’s dispensing medication?

Economic pressures drive leaner staffs, so seniors that require too much labor can be subjected to some dreadful tactics. Someone who needs considerable assistance to use the restroom, for example, is sedated and diapered so as to reduce staff load. The family is told the senior is now incontinent. And don’t disrupt the dining room by complaining loudly about the food or causing a scene. You will be isolated to meals in your room.

One facility here has a ‘death closet’, where the recently deceased are stored while awaiting removal. A family with a loved one at this facility came to visit. The loved one had cognitive impairment issues, so the family was quite surprised to discover she was not in her room, but someone else was. When the family cornered staff on her whereabouts, they discovered to their horror that she had been moved into the ‘death closet’. The facility wanted to rent out her room at a higher rate, while still charging the family for it.

Some workers are understandably horrified by these kinds of abuses, but fear speaking out, as whistle-blowers aren’t likely to be welcomed at other facilities. The same goes for family members who protest about problems with their loved one’s care. Bills for newly necessary equipment, new requirements for a caregiver at your expense, and even eviction can ensue as retribution.

Many of us take care with our health, strive to live a long life…. and shudder at the thought of wasting away in a nursing home as our closing chapter. We also cringe with worry over subjecting our parents to potential abuse when they’re very frail. Money is supposed to be the great equalizer in this country – we believe that by having financial resources, we can insulate ourselves from being at the mercy of others, particularly when we are at our most vulnerable. But even with expensive senior care, there are no guarantees. The industry is loosely regulated, and California generously warns facilities of impending inspections.

What can you do? Review the Medicaire ratings for facilities. A Place For Mom also has great info on audits and complaints. Hire caregivers to keep eyes on your loved one when you can’t be there. Make surprise visits. Ensure your family puts these provisions in place for you.

As a country with a large population of aging baby boomers facing their golden years, you can bet this issue will generate increasing scrutiny, as it should. Our senior care options should be a lot better than this.

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Mental Health – Into the Vortex

Column by By Sharon Byrne, as featured in the Santa Barbara Sentinel

Elliot Rodger committed mass murder in May in Isla Vista. Nicolas Holzer murdered his parents and two young sons in August. Severely mentally ill individuals wander Santa Barbara streets, sometimes shouting loudly at passersby. One could start wondering if we’ve become the next Waco around here, and not be thought mad.

Prop 63, the Mental Health Services Act, passed in 2004, was supposed to deal with the most acutely mentally ill. The MHSA has come under fire from critics charging that it’s been a boondoggle for mental health insiders. Instead of funding critical care for the acutely mentally ill, critics contend it’s been used to fund conferences and glossy brochures. Counties get to propose the programs they will offer under MHSA, some critics say, and many don’t want to take on these difficult cases. So they don’t, leaving a huge gap in services for those most in need of mental health care.

The State Auditor’s office audited the MHSA in August of 2013, covering 2006-2011, when almost $7.4 billion was spent on mental health through Prop 63. The audit found that each county was using different approaches, and that the state’s entities “have provided little oversight of county implementation of MHSA programs and their effectiveness. We expected that Mental Health and the Accountability Commission would have used a process to monitor, guide, and evaluate county implementation that built on their broad and specific MHSA oversight responsibilities and also incorporated best practices in doing so, but that is not what we found.”

Law enforcement is often the first point of contact in these cases. Our sheriff, Bill Brown, perhaps more than anyone else in our county, has been on the frontlines on mental health issues recently.

Sheriff Brown also serves on the Mental Health Services Oversight & Accountability Commission. He says Prop 63 “is a great tool to try to bridge the gap from the deinstitutionalization movement in the 1970’s”, and feels some of the funds go to good programs. He listed the Mental Health Association of Long Beach as an example. They are a “one-stop shop: mentally ill individuals can do laundry, get medical services, bank, get vocational assistance – it’s very impressive, with a lot of partners working together to make it work, including the police department. Additionally, they have a strong peer-counseling element available, working with mental health professionals to address mental illness. This is particularly helpful with the homeless because the peer counselor might have navigated that system and can help more than a professional with a degree on the wall, but who might not be able to relate to that world as well.”

The oversight commission reviews and approves requests for funding, and ‘some of those are hard, particularly when services are really remote from the folks needing them’, Brown said, citing the concern of more rural counties. There has long been a movement in government funding to allow programs to be driven by the local needs. This is the case for mental health as well. But the problem arises when Kern County has a particularly robust set of programs, while another county’s might be lagging.

Brown is hard at work building the new jail, and mental health is very much on his mind. “Jails have become the de-facto mental institutions for communities because there’s often nowhere else. PHF (the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility) has 16 beds, far too few for a county our size, and we end up having to take people out of county. People in crisis don’t have resources, commit some kind of crime, and end up in jail. The new jail is being designed in such a way that there’s a health wing being custom designed as a better way for us to manage people who have severe mental illness.’ Brown was quick to note this wouldn’t be a mental health hospital. But jails now clearly need to have some ability to deal with the mentally ill that wind up in their facilities, bringing up the key question of why Prop 63 isn’t addressing more of those cases.

Psychology and psychiatry are relatively juvenile sciences, when compared to, say, physics and chemistry. Newton’s achievements in the 17th century led to us putting a man on the moon. In contrast, Freud and Jung achieved their breakthroughs a little more than a century ago. The dark days of female hysteria, forced institutionalization and lobotomies to create more compliant housewives are still fairly recent history. Pharma-psychology is all the rage now – there’s a pill for that, whatever ailment that is.

We’re just still pretty new at treating mental illness.

Brown also worries that recent high profile instances make mentally ill individuals seem dangerous, and violent, when this is the exception, rather than the norm. “It’s unfortunate we had two back-to-back like this, here, but most mentally ill people do not commit violent crime. These instances do drive home the point that we need to be collectively behind getting people treatment, to help them and the rest of the community.”

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Turning Trashcans into Art? Yes We Can! on Milpas

Milpas on the Move, by Sharon Byrne

When you’re working on urban revitalization, you often hit those pesky problems for which traditional answers just don’t work. In a town of lovely stucco white walls, mandated for a continuity of never-ending Mission Revival rooftops, graffiti is a persistent plague. Apparently, vandals see those lovely white walls not so much as planning standards, but as wonderful canvasses, just waiting to be splattered.

blighted can on Milpas

blighted can on Milpas

We’ve hit that same problem with our public trash cans. They just seem to be blight magnets, darn it.

Even more vexing is the trash we find scattered along the sidewalks, often achingly close to the trash bins. We have some great block captains on Milpas that make it a point to get out there and pick up trash. We even have a homeless guy that does it. Mental note to pay that guy…

But the majority of the problem is sandwiched between Haley and Canon Perdido, which also happens to be the major corridor for the junior high and high school kids. Little wonder then that what we find on the sidewalks is candy wrappers, empty potato chip packages, and the like.

So we’re taking a creative approach here on Milpas, and are asking the city to let us do something kinda’ crazy cool: how about we get our area kids to do artwork on themes around a healthy, clean community? How about we buy them art supplies to do it? And when they produce that art, what if we photograph it or scan it at high resolution, enlarge it, and print it to vinyl banner that fits the circumference and height of the cans? And how about we do all that, on our nickel as a community, at no cost to the city? Replacing those cans is darned expensive, up to $2,000 per can. With 42 of them on Milpas, that’s a hefty bill, right? So why not let the community step up to address the problem, and provide a solution?

We’d fix our littering problem with positive messaging, on the cans, by youth, for youth. We’d give Milpas an instant facelift. We’d turn our street into an instant art gallery for all the great art programs for kids in this community, and there are some serious rock stars on that front.

So we asked the neighborhood, what do you think? Should we do it? The answer was resoundingly YES! So we got right on it.

We’ve been pretty cautious in our approach, because we’re not a bunch of artists. We’re neighborhood folks, businesses and residents, looking to make improvements here. We expected to learn things on the journey.

We approached Casa de la Raza about doing a prototype for us, and they were totally enthused to produce the first wave of art through their summer youth program.

asa de la Raza youth team producing yes we can! Prototype art

Casa de la Raza youth team producing yes we can! Prototype

Stellar volunteer Ben Stafford photographed their art, at high resolution, and assembled it into a banner using photoshop.


Ben photographs the art for the prototype

Here’s the prototype proof before printing:


Then it was time to print and test the prototype on the cans. Pretty good!

MCA Board Member Paul Gifford tests the prototype on a Milpas trash can

MCA Board Member Paul Gifford tests the prototype on a Milpas
trash can

We’ve had terrific support and advice from Ginny Brush of the County Arts Commission, and they provided one of the grants for this project. Boys and Girls Club of Santa Barbara is producing the first round of art for the cans. Franklin Elementary ICAN, the Visual Arts and Design Academy at the high school, the Jr. High arts program, and Adalente will also be tapped for art. Businesses are getting excited about the project. The city is working out the details with us of how we mount the banners on the cans, maintain them, and replace if needed, as it is a temporary art project.

Now it’s time to present it before the Architectural Board of Review, and hope they say yes to the Yes We Can! turn our trashcans into art project. Here’s hoping!

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Through a Door Darkly…California’s Con Game of Mental Health

Part II: The Bait and Switch
By Sharon Byrne

It can happen to you.
It can happen to me.
It can happen to everyone eventually.
There’s a crazy world outside
We’re not about to lose our pride.
It Can Happen. Written by Yes, Released on the album 90125 in 1983.

Untreated mental illness is the leading cause of disability and suicide and imposes high costs on state and local government . . . . State and county governments are forced to pay billions of dollars each year in emergency medical care, long-term nursing home care, unemployment, housing, and law enforcement, including juvenile justice, jail and prison costs.” From the California Mental Health Services Act, passed in 2004.

Prop 63 Logo TransparentA decade after the Mental Health Services Act’s passage, I saw a homeless man wandering my street, screaming to no one about media lies. I walked my dog that night with a neighbor. As we passed by Chapala One, I saw this same homeless fellow sleeping in the garage entry. He raised his head as my dog approached him. He was intoxicated. My dog accepted a pat on the head and moved on to resume processing the evening’s peemails.

I wondered again why this man was in my neighborhood, obviously in need of mental health assistance. And what should I do? For the second time that day I questioned whether I should call the police. The guy is trespassing, and I am pretty big on the neighborhood watch thing.

But what’s this going to accomplish, really? What would the police do with him? Cite and release? Book him into jail? Relocate him to some other neighborhood?

None of those are a solution.

From the Mental Health Services Act:

(d)In a cost cutting move 30 years ago, California drastically cut back its services in state hospitals for people with severe mental illness. Thousands ended up on the streets homeless and incapable of caring for themselves. Today thousands of suffering people remain on our streets because they are afflicted with untreated severe mental illness. We can and should offer these people the care they need to lead more productive lives.
(e)With effective treatment and support, recovery from mental illness is feasible for most people.
(f)By expanding programs that have demonstrated their effectiveness, California can save lives and money. Early diagnosis and adequate treatment provided in an integrated service system is very effective; and by preventing disability, it also saves money. Cutting mental health services wastes lives and costs more. California can do a better job saving lives and saving money by making a firm commitment to providing timely, adequate mental health services.

Sounds good, doesn’t? The voters in 2004 thought so too….

So if we have the ability to provide ‘timely, adequate mental health services’ from taxing millionaires in this state, then why is that homeless man shouting the odds in my street, clearly in need of mental health services?

The act provides for oversight with a committee comprised of 16 individuals including a small business rep, large business, county sheriff, labor union, 2 persons with severe mental illness, a mental health professional, a school superintendent, a physician specializing in alcohol and drug treatment, and a rep with a heath services insurer.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown sits on this oversight committee.

In 2009 Rose King, an author of the original act, filed a complaint against the state Department of Mental Health. Moving far away from the promise of acute mental health care, MHSA spending was turning into a boondoggle for mental health service providers. King says, ‘They produce films, PSA’s, fund lots of conferences, and distribute grants to every interest group, which succeeded in getting them all on board with program: NAMI CA, Children and Family Advocates, Mental Health Associations, of course. And they all conduct conferences, trainings, promotional campaigns, etc. Lots of money spent on “planning.”

Services to be provided under the MHSA are at the counties’ discretion to plan and execute. The state’s Department of Mental Health (Mental Health) and the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission (Accountability Commission) were supposed to provide oversight and direction of county implementations of the MHSA. So how did counties move from funding acute mental health to putting on conferences and de-stigmatization campaigns?

The act was further weakened legislatively. On March 24, 2011, Governor Brown signed Assembly Bill 100 (AB 100) into law. Changes to the MHSA included the elimination of review and approval of county MHSA plans by the Department of Mental Health (DMH) and the MHSOAC. So there went oversight. Open season! Come all takers!

The Department of Mental Health was then eliminated by Governor Brown as part of his budget reforms in 2012-2013. Their services were transferred to other departments, mainly the Department of Health Care Services.

We’re still collecting money for Prop 63. Oversight has been weakened. So who’s in charge, and where is all the money going?

The answer in Part III.

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Sal’s Pizza: An American Story on the Eastside

Milpas on the Move by Sharon Byrne, featured in the Santa Barbara Sentinel

salIf you’re looking to try some authentic Italian pizza with terrific ingredients, stop in and see Sal. Across from the iconic cow on Milpas, Sal’s is celebrating 10 years in business. “It’s been a roller coaster at times, but you have to roll with the changes,” Sal grins. As the only Italian eatery on Milpas’ Eat Street, he is sitting quite comfortably in his own niche.

Sal arrived in Santa Barbara 28 years ago from Mexico. He’s a Salvador, but acts more like a Salvatore. Various cooking jobs brought him into contact with an Italian chef in Montecito, where Sal discovered a love of Italian food, and found his inner genius. Mexican guy becomes American and cooks Italian – a truly American story.

One of the lures of Sal’s is the array of fresh ingredients at the disposal of the modern pizza constructionist: fresh basil, roasted red pepper, eggplant, artichoke hearts, and gorgonzola, to name a few. Crusts are thin, the Italian way. “Thick crusts tend to bland out the pizza,” says Sal. “You want to taste the full flavor of the pizza, so keep it thin.”

For those that have spent time in the Northeastern US, the Pizza Bianca will be a welcome treat. Known as White Pizza from Boston to New Jersey, it’s made with Alfredo sauce. Sal’s Alfredo recipe was recently featured in Pizza Today, a pizza industry magazine.

sal2An Italian exchange student came in with a Swede once. Sal sees quite a bit of the international student traffic. The Swede asked the Italian, ‘what are you doing? You’re from Italy! Why eat here?’ The Italian said wistfully, “I am far from home. I just want to taste something like it.” He told Sal afterward that it was the best Italian pizza he’d had in Santa Barbara, and was quite close to what he ate in his small Italian hometown. Sal also sees a lot of English tourists (!). Apparently they tell each other where to go and what to eat when visiting Santa Barbara, and Sal’s is clearly on their hot list.

Popular dishes may raise some eyebrows, like the Cajun Chicken Fettuccini. Who doesn’t like a little Nawlin’s in your Italian, and more of that unique American penchant for mixing it all up in one big melting pot?

Sal has a reputation for being one of the nicest guys on Milpas. He’s long been involved in our community activities, and iss a strong supporter of efforts to revitalize the area. Like most of the Milpas merchants, he loves kids. Munching on one of his fabulous pies one day, I asked him about it. He’s got three wonderful kids and a wife helping in the business – it’s a true family enterprise. But why step up so much for the neighborhood?

He smiled as his eyes twinkled. “We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain in coming together as a community. How could I resist?”

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Through a Door Darkly…California’s Con Game of Mental Health

Part I: Heard on the Street
By Sharon Byrne

I heard a man shouting the odds outside my bedroom window Tuesday morning.

Living close to the bar zone vibrant Night Life District, one gets attuned to noise on the street. It’s the noises that don’t belong that warrant investigation. These can turn out to be drunken carousing, domestic arguments that have moved outdoors, gang fights, etc.

Our man in the street was screaming about TV – don’t watch it! Don’t listen to the radio! Don’t read the news! It’s all lies and propaganda!

There are days when this view sadly approaches truth. But it’s one thing to question whether media outlets truly provide anything objective anymore in the way of news reporting, and another altogether to preach it wildly in the street to a silent choir of sidewalks, barrier fences, and trash bins.

He was disheveled, dirty, eyes darting back and forth, lips curled. Not. Tethered. To. Reality.

I wondered if I should call 911. But what can they do? Yeah, he’s disturbing the peace, but he’s clearly mentally ill. They can remove him from the neighborhood…but to where? Jail? That’s no answer. Ask Rodger Dodge of the Scanner Report – lots of 5150 calls come in daily. But last I checked, the police aren’t mental health workers. It’s really not their purview.

Except that increasingly, in California, it is. There are reams of news stories and studies declaring that within the ranks of the homeless, a significantly large number are mentally ill. Many of us have had the experience of encountering someone homeless nattering to themselves, gesticulating wildly. If you haven’t…well, you must not get out much.

Citizens and police get the first contact, and we’re little equipped to deal with them.

On the Milpas Outreach Project, where we’re working to help chronically homeless individuals leave life on the street, some team members felt strongly that a couple of our cases were seriously mentally ill. It seems intuitive – if you’ve become an addict living on the street, you might not have had the greatest mental health to start with. It’s probably gotten worse through addiction. But surprisingly, or maybe not, when one of them completely sobered, his repeat drunken violence dwindled to a small anger management issue. Alcoholism had acted as a massive amplifier for a very manageable mental health problem.

Advocates have been ratcheting up the call for mental health spending in this state, but maybe what we need is more funding to the counties for drug and alcohol abuse prevention and treatment. That could help make acute mental health issues associated with homelessness more manageable in each locality, where the problem is experienced.

Speaking of locality, back to our man in the street: so what should you do in a situation like this? Drunk or not, the guy is clearly not in a state where he’s functioning well. Why don’t we have something for people like this?

Prop 63 Logo TransparentTurns out we do. Thanks to those helpful online commenters who keep pointing me to Prop 63 – that was supposed to help with these problems.

The good people of California passed Prop 63, known as the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), in 2004. This tax on the wealthiest 0.1% of California taxpayers, about 30,000 people, is one of only four tax increase initiatives passed in this state. If you are one of these high earners, you pay an additional 1% tax on every dollar you make over the $1 million mark annually into the MHSA, billed as the way to transform California’s public mental health system, with a focus on promoting recovery-oriented programs. Some of the funds were supposed to go to providing direct services to severely mentally ill individuals, and provide new approaches and access to underserved communities. So here’s the help for our man on the street, right?

Er, no. A decade after passage, the state has raked in billions for mental health…and we still have seriously mentally ill homeless people wandering about, unable to get help. Our county’s ADMHS department recently had a rather large…pardon the pun….breakdown. Our sheriff is trying to allocate a wing of the new jail to deal with the fact we have a measly 16 beds in the entire county for acute mental health care. The police have little choice but to book serious cases into jail for a few days or hours to prevent them from being a danger to themselves or others. If we’re going to keep incarcerating the mentally ill, Sheriff Brown wants to at least try to plan adequately for it.

What the heck happened to the Mental Health Services Act??? Where did all the money for the seriously mentally ill from Prop 63 go?

The answer in Part II.

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Broken Window Breaks Code of Silence In West Downtown

By Sharon Byrne

In the course of working on improving neighborhoods, I continually run into hesitation around involving the police. The communities I work in are predominantly Hispanic, where there is understandably some fear regarding exposure of citizenship status. A code of silence regarding police is the norm, egging on criminal activity. No need for would-be perpetrators to sweat because engaging the police might actually turn out worse for crime victims than being robbed, for example. At least, that’s the thinking…

My best friend is first-generation American, as am I. His parents are Mexican. Mine are British. As children, we both experienced our parents’ heightened concern over engaging with US authority figures, like police. When you are an immigrant seeking citizenship, you never want to bring negative attention to yourself because you can be deported. His parents entered the country illegally in the 1970’s. They’re citizens now. Mine came here in 1967. It took 8 long years to get their citizenship, and they prize it. My father jokes he’s more American than I’ll ever be because he sought US citizenship, while mine is just a happy accident of birth.

sbpdMy friend was taught to keep his head down and his mouth shut. Never call the police – we could get deported. Never throw rat (by reporting crime). The perpetrator might live nearby, or know who your family is. When the police let him go, he’ll pay you back. Sometimes when my friend sees me engage in neighborhood watch activities, he experiences notable consternation.

On the closing day of Fiesta, we decided to go see a movie at Metro 4. Walking down Haley towards State, I saw a young teen, jerking a bit as he walked past the Holiday Inn, shouting randomly. I watched as he paused before a car parked on the street, and proceeded to kick in the passenger window, in broad daylight.

My friend turned, hearing the explosion of glass, and yelped, ‘what was that?!?!’

I shouted, “STOP! Citizens’ arrest!”

“Fuck you!” the kid yelled, booking down Haley, turning south on Chapala.

I whipped out my phone. My friend said, “you’re not going to call the police!’ Then he groaned. “We’ll miss the movie.”

I stared at him. Hard.

He sighed. He knows me.

The Holiday Inn valet hurried over and asked if we’d seen what happened. I gave the police the kids’ description, the direction he was headed, and my location. Dispatch asked me to wait there for an officer.

My friend sighed loudly, frustrated, and then his eyes widened. He said, “what if he’s headed to our neighborhood?!?” Our area, at the dead-end of De La Vina and Gutierrez, has encampments used often by the young transient set. This kid was clearly jacked on something. My friend wondered if he should tail him, in case the kid busts out more windows on his rampage?

Wow. He instantly moved from ‘don’t call the cops’ to ‘I’m going to go keep eyes on him until they get here.’ Very cool.

The next 10 minutes passed in a flurry of phone calls with dispatch, the responding officer, and my friend, who tracked the kid as he busily continued his vandalism spree. When he saw my friend on the phone, he started threatening, so my friend backed away. He took off near Lily’s Tacos, and my friend lost sight of him. He asked people on the street if they’d seen him. Not everyone wanted to be a good citizen, but when he told a group of Hispanic men in Spanish that the kid was busting out car windows, they pointed down an alley. The kid jumped the fence to the freeway, but came back over into the parking area by the Roasting Company.

Two female officers arrested him while he shrieked epithets and resisted fiercely. My friend watched to make sure the officers had him safely because, you know…they were lady cops and all.

I suspect he secretly wanted to be their back-up.

Our neighbors saw us giving the police our statements, and one chided my friend in Spanish about being a rat. My friend let him have it, long overdue, as this neighbor is not a particularly stellar guest of the US. What if it had been his windows that got smashed? Would he want us to protect the perpetrator from police then?

Doubt it.

My friend shredded the old code of silence – a welcome turn of events. I hugged him for it.

A democratic society depends on its citizens to help determine its laws, and assist in ensuring that they are upheld. See criminal behavior? Report it. You know you’d want your fellow citizens to stand up and do it, if you were the victim.

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Drought, Smought, What’s it all About?

Column by Sharon Byrne

I’m trying to follow this issue diligently, really I am, but it’s very hard to figure out what’s really going on. Are we in a terrible drought… or not? Reading news stories…it’s all a bit confusing.

Santa Barbara View photo: Cachuma Lake, April 2014

Santa Barbara View photo: Cachuma Lake

The city of Santa Barbara has declared a Stage 2 drought. This sounds pretty dire, but Stage 2 is not that severe. There are restrictions on landscape watering. You should only wash your car at a commercial facility that recycles the water. Water is to be served on request only at dining establishments, gyms should limit shower times, etc. Not the end of the world, clearly. The city is letting its park lawns go brown. Stage 2 restricts golf course watering to nights, so the municipal golf course can stay green a little longer.

Though the city hasn’t declared a water emergency to the point where we need to exhale into plastic bags (banned) to recapture water vapor expended through our breathing, some of us are becoming drought-hawks, and maybe we should. A bit of chastening been circulating locally on the (still) emerald qualities of the lawns of the Fess Parker and Oprah’s estate. Fess’s lawn is actually browning at the edges, and they were quick to implement water-saving procedures early in the year, so leave off with chastising them. Peabody Charter installed a brand new lawn, raising eyebrows. City fountains have gone dry. Others, not so dry. But that’s allowed in Stage 2 – you can have a fountain. You just can’t replenish it with fresh water.

However, not everyone moved so rapidly into drought-hawk mode. Goleta made the local news for not imposing any water restrictions, with no plans to do so until September. And they just approved a big housing project. Hmmm… did they not get the drought memo?

Palm Springs plans to put some restrictions in place by August 1st. The Coachella Valley Water District hopes to have something in place by August 12th.

Aren’t they in the desert? Shouldn’t the drought have hit them long ago?

These planned restrictions are in response to the State Water Resources Control Board’s announcement July 15th that it will enforce state conservation rules with limits on washing cars, watering lawns and golf courses only overnight, and serving water at restaurants only on request.

Wait, that sounds like the Stage 2 drought the city of Santa Barbara already declared.

Ahhh, so some communities just haven’t declared drought restrictions yet for themselves, depending on their particular water situation. The state thinks things are pretty bad, though, on the water front, no matter how flush with water resources a particular community may be at present. That’s why the State Water Resources Control Board is moving to impose $500 fines on water wasters. Our city just beat everyone to the punch because the State Water Project refused to deliver any water this year, and Cachuma shrunk to pond size, inducing panic, appropriately. Communities with more ample water resources are making their own calls, and some are late to the drought table here, even those in the desert. Got it.

Given that each community water agency seems to have its own rules for when to kick into panic mode, as a whole, we’re not moving as a state to respond very aggressively to drought conditions. Didn’t Governor Brown declare a drought State of Emergency in January? How long does it take for that to take effect? Heck, the state hired Lady Gaga to do public service announcements to encourage Californians to take extraordinary measures to conserve water. You can see the PSA at saveourwater.com.
Gaga stumbles through a teleprompter to send you to saveourh2o.org, which re-directs you right back to saveourwater.com. Not the best marketing strategy ever. There you can find handy tips on saving water, including the clever tag line “brown is the new green.” It doesn’t seem to be subliminal plugging for Governor Brown…

I listen to commercial radio in the car, watch a little cable TV, and read a lot of California news stories. However, I have yet to be hit with that particular PSA.

Summing up: the state has declared a drought state of emergency and rolled out a PSA campaign probably only seen at this point by those who crafted it. The state is setting water restrictions at stage 2, and declared intent to issue fines for those not in compliance. Water districts are figuring it out one-at-a-time, with disparate rules regarding drought declaration and water restrictions, depending on their local water resources. Santa Barbara is willingly parching itself, while the desert seems amply supplied via aquifers, with time to spare in declaring a drought.

Maybe everyone doing their own thing is why we struggle so hard as a state every time a drought rolls around.

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Wins and Setbacks: Solving Chronic Homelessness Is About As Hard As We Thought

Milpas on the Move by Sharon Byrne

I wrote about the Milpas Outreach Project back in January, when it was just cranking up. With the changes at Casa Esperanza, increased patrolling in the area, and removal of environmental cues that enabled loitering, the majority of transients left Milpas. Some long-term homeless remained in the area, and most don’t cause issues, though we would prefer to see them off the street, of course. But there are a few that create continual problems. When the street had a larger transient population, they blended in. Now they stick out, occupying the same bus stop or parking area daily, often intoxicated or passed out. They require repeat police and fire responses, and after carting them off in ambulances multiple times, we’d had enough.

We connected with Jeff Shaffer of the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H), the group responsible for reducing homelessness across the county. We crafted the Milpas Outreach Project to get our 5 highest flyers off Milpas into a sustainable living situation in 6 months or less. That’s a very ambitious goal, given some of these characters have been on the streets for decades.

We meet weekly at Casa Esperanza, and determine next steps with each individual. We’ve roped in Mental Health, outreach volunteers from Common Ground, Legal Aid, Restorative Police, the Veterans Administration (they drive up weekly from Los Angeles for this meeting, as some of our high flyers are vets), shelter staff, and the business community. Two formerly chronically homeless individuals round out the team. They know every hiding spot and excuse in the book.

HomelessMilpasThis is the first time businesses have been at this table, and it creates quite a tension of opposites. The outreach team wants to establish relationships with the homeless. They’re interested in case history, what facilities the person has been in, medical and mental health issues. Their priority is compassion and treatment. The business community tends to be on the opposite end of the spectrum. The litmus test for us is whether reality on the street corner has changed. If he’s still there, day after day, it’s not a success. So we tend to provide a ‘shove’ and organizing framework to drive for progress. The team also has the grueling job of working through the maze of bureaucracy entailed in getting someone off the street. There are tons of forms to be filled out, mental health assessments, and other seemingly infinite minutiae required to queue someone for housing. Turns out you have to apply at each housing facility in the city, something I didn’t know before attempting this project.

We’ve also stumbled into an old problem for this town: Santa Barbara is non-profit rich, and coordination-poor. It’s hard to get everyone pulling in the same direction at the same time – they’re used to being in their silo, serving what they feel is the need, and partnerships are few, scattered and not coordinated. We’ve made some big strides in that area.

Of course, setbacks happen…often. These individuals are chronically homeless for a reason. A business paid for detox for an individual, who then went back to drinking, suspicious that we were carrying out some vast conspiracy against him. You get one into shelter…. and they check themselves out to return to their old haunt on the street days later. It can be very disheartening, so the wins are very sweet. One of our worst repeat offenders is now housed, sober, and doing well. Another is employed by a Milpas business, getting help with his veterans benefits, and applying for housing.

One is on the fence. We got him into detox through the VA. He checked himself out and came back. He’s in shelter now, but we’ve caught him panhandling and drinking – both no-no’s. It could go either way with this one.

One is stonewalling the outreach team. He’s quite amenable, willing to go to appointments…and then balks on taking any big steps that would change his life.

Our final case is determined to stay intoxicated and raise hell on Milpas. The path forward here is incarceration or Housing First… a tough sell. How can we justify giving housing to someone like this? It’s like we’re rewarding them for wreaking havoc. Yet evidence shows Housing First does work in these cases. You house them first, and then provide services to help them get their lives together. They tend to stay housed, and off the street. It also turns out to be cheaper than the repeat police / fire / jail / hospital circuit. But philosophically, it’s hard to digest.

At the conclusion of the six months, we decided to keep going, because it’s the only thing that’s worked. It’s also as hard as we thought it would be. It truly takes the community to solve this problem. But every success saves a lot of taxpayer dollars currently spent on emergency services. Once we thoroughly nail this process, it can be replicated to other neighborhoods. That would be a win for our city.

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Need Help From The City? Here’s Where To Get It!

Milpas on the Move by Sharon Byrne

In the process of working to improve Milpas, we’ve engaged with the city of Santa Barbara repeatedly. One of our first lessons we learned in urban renewal was to find all the services the city provides that can help you to help your community. We’re pretty fortunate around here that our city has several helpful numbers you can call for various concerns. To get the list, call (805) 897-2526.Call list f

Post it up on your fridge, and start dialing!

See an abandoned shopping cart? Call the Shopping Cart Hotline at 1 (800) 252-4613. They’ll come retrieve it and return it to the store of origin.

photo[3]FHow about dumping on the sidewalk? The first of the month always produces a plethora of mattresses, TVs and other urban flotsam on our sidewalks.

Yes, it’s irritating, but there is something you can do. First, there is a Junk On The Sidewalk hotline. Call (805) 564-5413 to report dumping, and they will come pick it up. Second, if you happen to catch someone in the act of dumping, Sue Sadler in Code Enforcement is your new best friend. For Sue to be able to prosecute an illegal dumper, she needs an eyewitness, a photo (whip out that cell phone), or other proof of the identity of the dumper. I once found a dump pile on the sidewalk with the dumper’s mail conveniently included, so I turned it in to Sue to pursue. She told me they catch a lot of folks that way! Sue is at (805) 564-5669.

We pride ourselves on being very walkable as a city, but some of our sidewalks are in need of repair. If you see uneven pavement, cracking, rupturing, or other sidewalk issues, call the Pothole and Sidewalk hotline at (805) 897-2630. They will take your sidewalk complaint, and put it into a queue of repairs, so don’t get miffed when a city truck doesn’t immediately pull up to start repair work. They will eventually get to it.

There’s also the ever-popular Graffiti Hotline. Caveat emptor here: the city removes graffiti from public property only. So if you find it on a bridge, city building, public trash can, park property, road sign, or other public place, call it in. If your property was vandalized, you should report it to SBPD so they can photograph it for their graffiti database. When they catch vandals, they search through their photo database for similar tags, and prosecute for all matches. So it’s worth reporting. And if they catch the vandals, the District Attorney’s office has a restitution program – very good reasons to report graffiti.

One number on the list reflects Santa Barbara’s rather unique set of problems – the Leaf Blower hotline. If someone fires up a noisy gas-powered blower nearby, call PD Dispatch at 897-2410.

Finally, if you want to be active in making our city a cleaner place, you can participate in the Giant Annual Community Clean Up Day! Looking Good Santa Barbara, run by Lorraine Cruz-Carpinter, puts this on with a huge assist from Marborg. Over 500 volunteers come out for 3 hours on a Saturday morning to scrub off graffiti, pick up trash, remove dumped items, corral shopping carts, plant trees, and more, all in service to a cleaner community. It’s a wonderful activity for families, and creates a great sense of ownership and pride in our city. The first 200 volunteers to sign up online will receive a $5 Starbucks gift card at the event. Sign up at http://www.santabarbaraca.gov/services/recycling/community/cleanups.asp


So quit whining, make some phone calls when you see problems, and come to the clean up! If we all do just a little, it can add up to making a huge difference!

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Milpas on the Move, Part II

Column by Sharon Byrne

World Cup Extravaganza at Pro Garden Supply

pgs sharonThanks to John Palminteri, I discovered Nat “Nathalio” Waller intended to provide 4,000 tacos for the Brazil V Mexico game at Pro Garden Supply on Milpas.

No, you don’t need to get your eyes checked. You read that right. 4,000 free tacos.

I immediately hustled over to find out if Nat was open to inviting the neighborhood? He enthusiastically said yes, because he’s just an all-around great guy. I sent out the invite immediately to the Milpaserenos. Turnout was huge. The tacos were amazing! The setting was awesome because Pro Garden Supply is loaded with gorgeous plants, flowers, and trees. The match was electrifying. Milpas is THE perfect place for World Cup action. Mental note to self: make Milpas into World Cup HQ Santa Barbara in 2018, if I’m still kicking.

Thank you Nat!


We’re Moving On Milpas!
We’re three months into the Milpas 1000 Challenge to drop 1000 pounds collectively, and get fitter around here. This month’s Milpas Moves! – our free community workout – came from Esteban Ortiz, who teaches a butt-kicker of a Zumba class at Casa De La Raza at 6:00 PM Mondays and Wednesdays for the bargain price of $5.

If you’ve never tried Zumba, it’s a blast. Think Salsa dance meets aerobics. A cardio workout that’s sexy. You actually feel good while burning massive amounts of calories. About 10 minutes in, you’re convinced you’re at least part Latino, as this is clearly in your blood. Plus you can’t stop smiling even though you’re sweating. In public.

Pushy Shovels grows incredible organic produce in the Eastside Community Garden, just a few blocks off Milpas. Marcos Olivarez turned up to give away free organic, locally grown goodies to the community! Maybe organic produce costs more, but we can all afford FREE.

Yes We Can!
Big win this week: we scored grants and a nod of enthusiastic approval from the Visual Art in Public Places Committee for a project near and dear to our hearts on Milpas: Yes We Can! turn our public trashcans into art.

IMG_4322Our trashcans are… well, eclectic, as we have multiple styles, and they’re not always in the best shape.

They’re expensive to repair and ridiculous to replace: like $2000+ per can. So rather than pester the city to spend a bunch of taxpayer dollars, we wondered if WE could take ownership of them by turning them into public art pieces?

We need to clear the Architectural Board of Review, but things are progressing. We’ll create some prototypes, with the Casa De La Raza youth arts team preparing the art. They’ll work up colorful pieces depicting a clean, healthy Milpas community. We’ll capture the art with a high res camera, print it to outdoor vinyl banner, and ‘wrap’ the cans. It gives Milpas an instant facelift, provides a public gallery for our youth to display their artwork, and gives kids (our most prolific litterers) a vehicle to educate each other on creating a better place for us all.

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The Congressional Race That SHOULD Happen

Opinion Journalism by Sharon Byrne

Primary election results are certified, and Chris Mitchum will be taking on Lois Capps this fall for the 24th Congressional District.


While projecting anything off the miserable primary turnout is risky at best, it is worth nothing that the redistricted 24th is theoretically supposed to be more competitive. From aroundthecapitol.com:


Registration alone won’t determine this race, obviously. Lois comes in with enormous advantages. However, we the voting populace should push the envelope here, and demand some serious conversations during the campaign. Candidates, please don’t trot out the usual: environment, women’s rights, and Tea Party sound bytes. Debates, if there are any, will no doubt be thoroughly peppered with them. The voters with pulses already know them all. By heart.

Instead, let’s start having a serious conversation about the Big Issues in this country, and there at least a few hot ones at present that these candidates should address:

  1. The IRS Scandal. And that’s what it is, plain and simple. Aside from the Massive Conglomerate of TSA / NSA / DOJ / CIA / FBI and Homeland Security, no agency in the federal government strikes greater fear into the hearts of Americans than the IRS. They possess awesome powers of intimidation, scrutiny, and confiscation. Americans are required to keep 7 years of tax returns handy in case the IRS wants to rescrutinize them. As citizens, we must be able to prove what we earned, what we paid to the government in taxes, and justify all of it to the nano-level of detail. It’s therefore utterly preposterous that this same agency is capable of losing their own emails in house when those are demanded for a bit of scrutinizing. It strains incredulity that our entire Congressional body and President are not screaming in unison for heads to roll, ordering up special prosecutors and thorough investigations, and rendering operations in the IRS openly transparent to the taxpayers.
  2. The VA Scandal. It’s a very dark day when Sarah Palin starts looking like she was on to something re government-provided healthcare. Although the American people have chosen to provide top quality care for our veterans, what has transpired is a national disgrace. Paying out bonuses to VA top dogs while they cooked the books to massage their stats, while they shuffled veterans desperately needing care further and further out on the calendar to the point of death …it’s a terrible national disgrace. Again, our congressional body and president should be properly appalled, and immediately take firm, decisive action, starting with rolling some heads. Electeds come and go, but bureaucrats remain, and actually run the show. This batch of VA Bureaucrats have now openly shown themselves to be focused on perpetuating the income, comfort, and longevity of…themselves. Quality of care for our veterans is clearly far from their minds. It’s time to flip that dynamic, and force some serious accountability and transparency into the VA.
  3. The Student Loan Bubble, and Impending Shrinkage of the Economy. This is a huge problem just breaking into mainstream consciousness. Something has gone horribly wrong when college graduates are working as barristas, living with Mom and Dad, and paying down loans that approach mortgage size. Something fundamental has shifted in our economy. Gone are the days of lifetime, secure employment with a retirement pension. Those jobs only exist in government now. The current economy is more uncertain and less stable. With high debt loads, even the more successful graduates aren’t going to be in the housing market anytime soon, or will find they’re severely constrained in how much house they can buy…by their student loans. Those loan payments are for services already rendered, and thus won’t be stimulating the economy, so expect that effect to start kicking in at some point. Others are defaulting. Expect to feel that too. Maybe the US could learn something from China about where to place strategic bets in expanding one’s economy, and getting those to pay off (rather than just paying off corporations for feel-good stuff or subsidizing them because they got you elected).

There are no cute, pat answers for these problems. And this is just three of them.

I wait eagerly to hear what our candidates propose to do. I long for some fresh thinking, sharp strategizing, and some brilliant proposals to move this country forward again. Where’s the coalition-builder capable of getting things done? I want to see some real leadership talent, and get an up-close look at the highest powers of creativity these two are capable of bringing to the table. That’s the campaign that SHOULD happen.

We have to demand that, en masse, or we’ll just get the usual well-trod and market-tested talking points, followed by a high dose of mudslinging.

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