On what’s been branded as a slice of the American Riviera, 49-year-old Gaston Doke and handful of other men living on the street took a break from dodging police in Santa Barbara, California – where officers have practiced some of toughest enforcement of vagrancy laws in the nation, according to four years of FBI data through 2013.
“They used to give me a ticket every morning,” Doke said, sprawled on the grass next to the wheelchair he needs to get around. “I stopped counting how many I have.”
Doke’s experience with police is not extraordinary in this wealthy enclave. Average home prices top a million dollars, tourism is the fastest growing industry, vacancy rates are near zero, and the city’s 900 homeless are a constant source of tension for merchants and residents.
It’s an idyllic getaway for Hollywood celebrities and wealthy day-trippers, but not for the downtrodden. Officers in this town of about 91,000 people give out hundreds and hundreds of tickets a year for loitering and sleeping on the street. The most common citation is for illegal lodging. Officials say it’s one way to help those living on the skids funneling them into social services by forcing them through the court system, but homeless advocates call it unfair – and possibly unconstitutional – harassment.
But a look at FBI data shows Santa Barbara stands out in recent years for enforcing vagrancy rates at a higher rate than most other American cities. In 2013, Santa Barbara cited or arrested people for vagrancy at a rate of nearly 2,300 people per 100,000; that’s an arrest rate roughly 230 times greater than in Los Angeles, its massive urban neighbor two hours to the east. And it was the highest rate in the country that year.
While using FBI data can be tricky and municipalities can underreport these statistics, a recent study suggests Santa Barbara’s growing use of vagrancy laws is one particularly alarming part of a broader anti-homeless push by several California cities.
Data provided by the city to the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC-Berkeley’s School of Law show a nearly four-fold increase in homeless ticketing rates between 2008 and 2014. Ticketing rose, even though the number of homeless decreased slightly.
While Santa Barbara is cracking down on vagrancy, the Obama administration is going in the other direction, pushing police departments to stop criminalizing homelessness amid growing questions about the constitutionality of vagrancy laws. But former Santa Barbara police chief Camerino Sanchez, who retired in mid-February, calls his force’s carrot-and-stick approach necessary.
About 15 members of the 152-member police department are largely dedicated to dealing with the homeless.
Under a program dubbed “restorative policing,” Sanchez trained patrol officers to identify mental illnesses and assigned an officer and case worker to work with homeless in a court targeting repeat offenders.
Those ticketed homeless persons are steered to a voluntary six-month court program that provides social workers to help get them off the street, off police docks, off debilitating addictions and into housing. Now four years old, one of the restorative court’s biggest successes is Joel Escarcega, who lived on the skids for 17 years and cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars as he rotated between the street and multiple arrests. Police wrote him a whopping 747 citations before he got sober and placed in housing.
“Some of them believe we are trying to harass them,” Sanchez said of the city’s street-dwellers. “They paint us with the same brush, but we try to get them services. We have to draw the line somewhere.”
But it’s not always that simple. On an average day in court, about a dozen or so homeless are waiting to see the judge. Many clearly have mental health issues, and folks like Doke just don’t want to get into the system. Others drop out.
Many vagrancy citations are never paid and turn into arrest warrants, which can then result in jail time. A day in the overcrowded Santa Barbara County jail costs taxpayers about $160.
The last time Doke – or “Gator,” as he is known on the streets – went to jail, he said, he had 28 warrants for not paying or failing to show up to court on open-container and illegal-lodging citations. He wound up staying for 48 days. He has been banned from one park and now sleeps watchfully on the beaches, avoiding police.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Brian Mathis, a deputy public defender who works with the restorative court. “It doesn’t fix anything, it just builds a criminal record. At some point the volume of tickets starts causing people problems.”
Last December, Christie Whitehed, a wheelchair-bound woman who earlier that day had been resting with her belongings near boutiques along the tourist-friendly State Street, started crying when asked by a reporter why she was in court. She needed a cigarette, she said.
Whitehed had no bed of her own. Her clothes looked worn, her face unwashed. Placed into the homeless court after a “failure to appear” on a drug charge, she was struggling to stick to the program. An officer, using a tough-love approach, told her he would cite her if he saw her one more time loitering.
Between 2011 and 2015, 146 homeless completed Santa Barbara’s six-month program; 59 have found housing, and 60 took the city’s offer for a one-way return ticket home to relatives, though half of all homeless in the county already lived in Santa Barbara before losing their residences. There’s no clear evidence what long-term impacts this program has on the homeless; the police have reported more vagrancy arrests or citations since the court began.
Despite this growth in ticketing and arrests, police said their enforcement techniques haven’t changed; how they process violations has changed, however. Officers now increasingly charge Santa Barbara homeless with violations of criminal state laws, instead of less-serious city infractions. This allows judges to set fines and other more stringent penalties.
Meantime, Santa Barbara officials have ratcheted up pressure on homeless. Last year, the city council toughened restrictions on panhandling, public urination and sleeping along the street during the day, a move seen by homeless and their advocates as simply more harassment.
“It’s a city that’s very conscious of its aesthetic; it wants everything to look pretty,” said Peter Marin, a longtime homeless advocate who pushed successfully for warming stations to be set up by the county five years ago. “People come here to get away from the big cities. They have a very low tolerance for anything that disturbs that idyllic illusion.”
The city’s mayor, Helene Schneider, said there simply aren’t enough resources to shelter all the homeless; little housing stock is available, with average rents for a two-bedroom north of $2,000 a month, a financially strapped mental health system, and a small number of shelter beds.
“We do what we can with the authority that we have,” Schneider said. “We have done a number of projects of housing and getting people shelter first.”
But for a lot of homeless like Daniel Sovinsky, a 59-year-old unemployed carpenter who had been living on and off the beach, or Doke, who smokes marijuana, shelters with strict rules against drugs and alcohol aren’t an option. Dovinsky just wants a place where he can get on his feet, shower regularly, find work and not worry whether he will be kicked out.
“I have gotten ten tickets in four months. You either go and pay these tickets, go to jail or they give you a bus ticket out of here,” he said, adding: “I am trying to get it together.”
All photos by Valerie Bischoff
This content was made possible in part by a grant from the Ford Foundation and produced independently by Fusion’s editorial staff. To find out more, explore our interactive map and read more of our coverage of America’s dysfunctional system of policing.