Homelessness is an extremely complex social problem that impacts the quality of life in all communities, including here in Santa Maria.
“I think what we’re finding is that homeless is continuing to remain static or reducing in a lot of communities locally. Unfortunately, in Santa Maria we seem to be experiencing an increase in our homeless population around the community,” explained Kristine L. Mollenkopf, Assistant City Attorney, City of Santa Maria.
To address the issue, local community leaders from a variety of different departments decided to come together and take a proactive approach to resolving the issue locally. A big part of that is increasing awareness about the issue and what businesses can and should be doing to properly handle the issue of homelessness.
“Being homeless isn’t a crime,” Mollenkopf said, “but unfortunately when people find themselves in those circumstances a lot of times it can lead to behaviors and activities that are criminal in nature.”
Those most affected by the acts of the local transient population tend to be the business community.
“We decided it was time to do some local outreach with our local businesses,” Mollenkopf said. “We get a lot of complaints and concerns and there seems to be a lot of miseducation and lack of understanding in our business community as to what tools they have at their disposal in order to address the issue.”
One of the biggest misconceptions businesses have is assuming they have no real authority to ask folks to move along or leave their property. While it’s not recommended that businesses necessarily approach these individuals directly, there are a variety of local resources businesses can use to proactively address the issue.
“One of the best tools with local law enforcement is letter of authority,” said Sergeant Russell Mengel, Community Services Supervisor for the Santa Maria Police Department .
Available on the city website (http://www.cityofsantamaria.org), business owners can fill it out and then they send it back to the police department.
“With that letter on file we send our officers out to check the areas. If they see a transient camp on the property, they know they can act on behalf of the property owners to issue the citation or make the arrest, whatever the situation may call for,” explained Mengel. “It gets the people off the property and it also sends a clear message that their business isn’t the place to camp or loiter.”
The police department has also recently begun a bicycle patrol program, which focuses on patrolling business, particularly retail areas of the community. “We get out 3-5 times a week,” Mengel said. “Patrols last anywhere from 4-6 hours. During that time, we’ll typically contact between 15-20 individuals who are either engaging in criminal conduct or infringing on the rights of others.”
The Recreation and Parks Department also plays a role in patrolling the community to help address issues caused by the transient population.
“Our department is primarily in the parks and the city owned lots,” said Casey Stone, Senior Parks Services Officer for the Recreation and Parks Department. “We’re at the mall and the transit center and the city hall area. We deal with the criminal side of things – citing people for the drug violations dangerous needles, shopping carts which can make quite a mess. We also work with local community organizations like Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (http://www.c3homes.org) to try and get these people into services that can assist them.”
Apart from city resources, there are actions business owners can take to make sure their property is safe and discourage loitering by the transient community.
“Sensor lights, motion detector lights, security cameras can be a big deterrent,” explained Mollenkopf. “Little things like keeping your trash enclosures locked so people can’t access them. Lock or secure any external spigots or electrical outlets that may be on the property.”
The City of Santa Maria is also taking steps to help the homeless and transient communities get the assistance they need to become a productive member of society.
“The city has recently stepped into more of the compassionate realm of the homelessness issue,” Mollenkopf said, “and we’re doing more to assist those who are struggling and do want the help.”
This year’s city budget, recently adapted by City Council, provides funding to help address the homelessness issue. One of the areas these funds will go to is providing case managers to help individuals get back on a positive track.
“City council sees this as an important issue for the quality of life for the city and the business vitality of the community.,” said Jason Stilwell, Deputy City Manager for the City of Santa Maria. “Each individual has different circumstances so the focus now will be on individuals who are ready for substance abuse treatment, are ready for housing, are ready for a job – and being able to give them that connection of a case manager to taking steps towards meeting these needs.”
Not only will case managers help those in need, it’s also more cost effective for the city.
“If someone is always calling 911 when they have minor emergencies, that’s a much more expensive solution than having someone out there who’s proactively addressing the issues or making sure they’re getting their medication or getting to their appointments on time,” Stilwell explained.
The city hopes that by making the community more aware of steps they can take, and also being proactive in helping the homeless community, we can all work together and address this issue in a positive way.
“We do run into some people who are living in the transient community that are really just looking for that assistance to come back and be a productive member of society,” Mengel said. “And we want to help these people. We want to make sure businesses and our community is safe, but we also want to provide assistance to those in need.”
“We’re here to treat everyone with respect and really just want to keep the city safe and clean,” Stone said, “and really just encourage people to be out and enjoying Santa Maria.”
See the video below to hear more from community leaders on the issue of homelessness, and the steps the city of Santa Maria is taking to help.