Although Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez wasn’t actually wearing any gloves at this Tuesday’s City Council meeting, he took them off anyway as he declared his intent to eject the groups of younger belligerent street people who tend to cluster on the 600 block of State Street near or on the brick street sculpture — dubbed “Crescent Crossing” — designed to double as a bench and bus stop.
Although complaints about the vagabond “travelers,” as Sanchez referred to them, is nothing new, the number and intensity of such concerns has crescendoed in recent weeks. Business owners have taken their mounting frustration to City Hall, the Police Department, the Downtown Organization, and any arts commissioner or city councilmember they can get on the phone. Complaints include aggressive panhandling, rude and lewd remarks, intimidation, drug dealing, chalking sidewalks and storefronts, and threatening downtown workers.
The situation has grown so combustible that Urban Outfitters reportedly instructs its employees to take outdoor breaks only when accompanied by someone else. Many business owners have long contended the presence and behavior of these younger street people, often accompanied by their dogs, has done violence to their bottom line. Owners of the Habit, Blush, and Dargan’s met with the Downtown Organization’s Safety Committee in late February to express such concerns.
In early March, Sanchez himself toured the area as his officers issued citations. “It’s unacceptable,” Sanchez told the council. He said he was taking cops off other assignments and redeploying them to the 600 block of State Street as part of a three-week trial campaign. “We have to put out the fire where the fires are,” Sanchez said. In the first six days, Sanchez reported his officers issued 151 citations, eight felony arrests, and 13 misdemeanor arrests. All, he said, involved the so-called “travelers,” whom he took pains to distinguish from the homeless or the mentally ill.
Based on what he described as an “admittedly unscientific” survey, Sanchez said 90 percent of the travelers came from out of the state, not just out of town. Sanchez said he spent three hours last Friday “touring” five makeshift encampments located by freeway off-ramps beginning at 5:30 in the morning. He characterized 85 percent of the occupants he encountered as travelers. “Needles everywhere,” he exclaimed. He expressed astonishment at the technically sophisticated equipment the camps had, but even more, he said, he was struck by the filth and the squalor.
Sanchez informed the councilmembers that his department would initiate a campaign to root out such camps, working in conjunction with Caltrans and the Union Pacific Railroad company. He stressed, however, that the department would give all camp occupants 72-hour advance written notice before swooping down.
In the meantime, the artistically rendered street perch and bus stop has been bundled up in yellow tape, reminiscent of a crime scene, in preparation for steam cleaning and repair work on bricks that have been dinged and nicked over the years by airborne skateboarders. How long it will take to secure the necessary permits remains anyone’s guess.
In the meantime, a barrier will be erected around the sculpture. That, however, is a stop-gap solution. Last year, similar complaints prompted the police department to suggest the sculpture be relocated as part of a more permanent fix. But that idea was dropped in face of opposition from the Arts Commission and by the artist, Donald W. Davis, himself. Under the federal Visual Artists Rights Act, however, Davis’s work can’t be moved without his consent.
Police spokesperson Riley Harwood noted that the sculpture no longer functions as a bus stop because MTD — in response to the travelers’ emergence onto the scene many years ago — relocated its stop. He said the street art might do better in front of Cottage Hospital or by the city’s airport. The sculpture, he said, helps pinch in the sidewalk, bringing the panhandlers in closer proximity to passersby, as do the outdoor patios installed by some of the newer restaurants in the area. Throw in the paseo connecting State Street to Parking Lot 10, Harwood added, and you have a recipe for trouble that no amount of cops can cure. Besides, he added, not all objectionable behavior is illegal.
Harwood acknowledged there are plans to install a video monitor on the 600 block of State Street. Others have suggested that police issue citations to travelers who violate city ordinances banning smoking within 20 feet of an outdoor dining establishment or possessing an unlicensed dog. Others have proposed City Hall adopt an ordinance banning anyone from parking their backpacks on the sidewalk. But such citations are only as effective as City Hall’s ability to enforce them, and given the shortage of space in the County Jail, that’s not much.
Tuesday was the first day on the job for new City Attorney Ariel Calonne, who was peppered with constitutional questions from Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss, who wanted to know if it was legal for cops to demand identification from people with backpacks sitting on city benches. “There needs to be some cause,” Calonne replied. “Are you being intentionally vague?” shot back Hotchkiss, eager to provide city police maximum enforcement latitude. “I am,” the new city attorney replied.
No one from the public or the council spoke up on behalf of the travelers, not even councilmembers who typically voice concern for the homeless. Councilmember Cathy Murillo took Chief Sanchez to task for contributing to anti-pit-bull stereotypes by linking them with the travelers. “It’s the people who make the dogs behave in a bad way, not the dogs,” said Murillo, who owns and has rescued several pit bulls. Sanchez answered, “I apologize if I insulted you.”