Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Homeless issues, myths and answers

Rene Bravo’s letter to the editor (“Homeless impact,” June 26) affords me the opportunity to not only address Bravo’s valid concerns, but to also provide a broader snapshot of homelessness in our community. In doing so, I also hope to dismantle of few of the more prevalent myths.

Bravo’s letter was prompted by worries about the possible impacts of a proposed homeless services center on South Higuera Street and what he perceives as a lack of a “concerted effort to talk with the community in the surrounding area.”

Earlier this year, two outreach sessions were organized by the Community Action Partnership in which I participated. The first invited business and property owners in the immediate commerce park and the second was held at the mobile home park on Prado Road.

Additionally, there have been two widely publicized public hearings before the Airport Land Use Commission and the city’s Planning Commission. There have also been preliminary discussions with police and fire and more detailed discussions with the Chamber of Commerce.

Certainly there should be — and will be — many more outreach efforts, but it is important to understand that the design process has not formally commenced, and that one of the conditions of the city’s use permit is the development of a neighborhood relations plan that will require regular meetings. Another formal requirement of the city’s approval process is referral for input from both police and fire.

As to the impacts of creating such a facility in the area, everyone involved appreciates the legitimate anxieties and existing problems, and that is why the ultimate design will be inwardly oriented and will include many security measures to reduce nuisance.

But it is important to understand two facts. The nearby Prado Day Center already serves an average of 133 people a day, and the Maxine Lewis overnight shelter (which is literally falling apart) has only 50 beds. If nothing is done, if no new effort to combine and expand services into one facility is undertaken, then the problem will not get better. It will only get worse.

This leads to a common fear that many of us involved have heard expressed: that if you build it, they will come. More homeless people will be attracted to our community if we provide better shelter and services.

There are several responses to this. The first is that we already have a homeless problem that has reached crisis proportions, with as many as 3,800 people lacking a permanent home on any given night. Almost half of them have been here for more than five years, a quarter having been raised here.

If it were true that a better shelter and services were in and of themselves attractive to homeless folks, then the homeless certainly wouldn’t be in our community in such great numbers. They would go to Santa Maria or Santa Barbara or Fresno, where they have the necessary resources and facilities that we lack.

While it is a fact that every community’s homeless population contains a large number of people who are chronically homeless because of mental illness and addiction, in our community, we have more than a thousand children who are homeless. These kids are in school and they have a parent (or two if they are fortunate) seeking to take care of them, working low-wage jobs or set back by the loss of a job or the expense of a catastrophic medical bill or some other trauma.

We need to take care of these kids by helping their parents get back on their feet and back into the community. Self-sufficiency and a more efficient consolidation of services are the two overarching goals of creating a homeless services center.

Such a regional center is a critical component of the 10-year plan’s Path to Home. No one is interested in warehousing people. Everyone is focused on helping as many people as possible return to the independence of shelter and sustenance and the enhanced dignity that follows.

We are faced with a crucial moral and civic choice in our county. Do nothing and see the growing homeless problem worsen with increasing consequences, or work together to better address it, work together to make this critical first step of a homeless services center a reality.

Adam Hill represents the 3rd District on the Board of Supervisors and serves as the chair of the Homeless Services Oversight Council.