Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Characters on the Street or Streets With Character?

Yesterday afternoon the Santa Barbara City Council had a discussion on transient related street crimes. I caught part of it from the comfort of my living room via the live broadcast on TV.

If you read me on any kind of a regular basis you know that I live downtown and therefore walk on State Street just about everyday, so I have more than a passing interest in this discussion. And, as I've written here before, it's a rare occasion when I'm able to walk downtown and back home without getting panhandled along the way. And yes, it's an annoyance. But I've never actually felt threatened. So I'm surprised when a number of people speaking during the public comment period mentioned they were afraid to go downtown and in some cases, were actually staying away from State Street.

People who seem to be frustrated with the fact that acts such as asking for money, sleeping on the streets and even being rude, can't be criminalized ought to remember that having to put up with this kind of behavior is a small price to pay for living in a free society.

True, there are places in Southern California where the main street is litter free, the old buildings are kept in pristine condition and there is not a homeless person to be found loitering anywhere. However they cost an arm and a leg to get into (but at least you are greeted upon entry by people dressed either in a mouse costume, a duck wearing a sailor suit, or as a lovable but somewhat dim-witted dog).

Since converting the City of Santa Barbara into an amusement park is probably out of the question I suggest we accept reality and learn to realize that the nuisances of daily living are not to be feared.

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The late Tom Murphy, whom I had the privilege to know, was a second generation Santa Barbara police officer. He used to tell a story about the days when his dad was assigned to the beat that included the hobo jungle adjacent to the railroad tracks. Every day Officer Murphy and his partner would round up hobos (that's what transients were called in those days) and put them on a freight train as it passed through town. One day Murphy rousted an Asian man who didn't speak English but nevertheless animatedly protested as the police tossed him onto a train. The next day at morning briefing when when the watch commander was going over the incidents of the previous 24 hours he advised his officers that the Miramar Hotel had reported a missing person, their Chinese cook who failed to show up for his regular shift. Murphy and his partner turned and looked at each other but maintained their silence.

Well, those days are over. Although I got the distinct impression from listening to the comments of council members Hotchkiss, Self and Francisco that they might long to have them back.

Look, I don't purport to know what the answer to the homeless/transient "crime" problem is but I don't think it is to be found in turning downtown into a police state or into Disneyland. Besides, either option would cost a lot of money and I doubt the taxpayers would want to pay for it.