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It’s Getting Dark Out There. Let’s Have Some Fun!

Milpas On the Move: By Sharon Byrne

Continuing on with my favorite season, Autumn, there are some great things going on in the community. You can certainly participate without having to live or work in the Milpas area. We take all comers and welcome you as honorary Milpaserenos!
Check these out:
Light Up The Night – Illuminado de Noche – Milpas

We’re heading into the darkest time of the year, when days are short and nights are long. If you’re a bicyclist on the street after 5 PM, you’ll be biking in the dark. On unlighted streets like Gutierrez, that’s super dangerous unless you’re lit up like a power plant. So Bici Centro, a wonderful Eastside neighbor, is giving out lights and safety manuals to low-income cyclists in the area to make them more visible at night time. It’s free, and geared for Spanish speakers. They’re looking for volunteers. Speaking Spanish is not necessary, as they’ve got solid bilingual team leads.

The program runs 5 nights:
Milpas – Nov 3rd
Carpinteria- Nov 4th
Old Town Goleta Nov 5th
Westside- Nov 6th
Milpas Nov- 7th
For more info, go to

Day of the Dead – November 2nd:
1. Casa de la Guerra – 11 AM – 4 PM – Benefit for Adelente Charter School
2. Casa de la Raza. 5-10 PM.

One of the best things about America as a nation of immigrants is the importation of culture that broadens us, and expands our possibilities as a nation. The melting pot has its sweet spots, certainly. It’s also the American way to innovate and re-invent traditions from the Old Country (whichever one yours happens to be). When my parents grew up long ago in the north of England, All Hallows’ Eve was decidedly not fun. It has a history in the British Isles as the night when evil spirits walk the earth. Better lock up your farm animals and bar the door. In contrast, we Americans dress up little children as the things that go bump in the night, and send them out to get treats. Make fun of what scares you, and play with the dark side, rather than fear it. Brilliant.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, my all-time favorite holiday imported from Mexico, has a similar connotation. Don’t think zombies and graveyards. Day of the Dead is a day to get out pictures and keepsakes of relatives that have passed, put them on an altar, inviting them to be part of the family again, celebrating them with family and friends. Death is presented not as something sad, or to be feared, but to be embraced, as a part of life.

Adelente Charter School’s celebration of Dia de los Muertos at la Casa de la Guerra downtown features food, music, art and dance. I’ve seen some of the children’s art going into the event, produced by the Incredible Children’s Art Network, and it’s gorgeous. This is a fundraiser for the school, and should be a lot of fun for families.

The evening celebration at la Casa de la Raza is a stunning array of community, light, and life. The altars the Casa staff puts together are breathtakingly beautiful. It’s one of their best events, and before you ask, no you don’t need to speak Spanish or bring your passport for admission. Their doors are open to all, as a Mexican cultural heritage organization, and they want you to come in. Really. They are very warm and welcoming.

If that isn’t enough, let me further tempt you: they have great food at the event, and a bustling Mercado where you can get all kinds of cool Day of the Dead items.

There’s something very warm, comforting and healing in this particular holiday. I hope you’ll come out and enjoy this experience for yourself.

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.

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


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.

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.

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.”

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!

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.

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?”

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.