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.
This 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.