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The State

Pit Bull Attack Gets City's Attention

When a Santa Barbara councilman is bitten in a troubled neighborhood, officials take note. Residents of the area hope it means an end to years of neglect.

March 02, 2004|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — The battle of South Aliso Street began with a low growl in the underbrush and a sudden attack by three pit bulls, city Councilman Brian Barnwell recalls. One bit deeply into his foot, another ripped open a wound on his lower back, and one was going for an arm.

He was fighting for his life, he said. Luckily, he landed a punch straight to one dog's jaw. By then, Barnwell was growling back in "my most alpha male voice," swinging an abandoned folding chair he found on the ground.

"They came out of nowhere," he recalled. "Anyone other than a full-grown male could have been killed. But then a man came out from a nearby trailer and the dogs backed off. That's the way it ended."

But, in reality, the Feb. 13 attack wasn't an ending at all, but a beginning. It triggered a heated citywide debate over whether Santa Barbara has been solving its local homeless problems in recent years at the expense of merchants and residents on the city's largely Latino east side.

The pit bulls didn't belong to a homeless person, but to down-and-out residents of a small trailer in the area. The ferocity of the attack on one of the city's leading citizens, however, still became an immediate symbol of the increasing dangers in a neglected part of town with a growing homeless population.

"I knew there were problems down there," Barnwell said. "But when I found myself fighting for my life, it made it a whole lot more real."

The city's reaction was swift. The area was bulldozed within days. One pit bull owner was arrested for a parole violation. Police began a crackdown on the sale of alcohol to the homeless along Milpas Street and plastered the attack scene with no parking signs.

"My wife and I can't even park in front of our mobile home," said Ray Harris, 69, one of the few remaining residents.

Ultimately, the emotions led to a packed City Council meeting last Tuesday night that appeared to be a turning point for all sides and could lead to better communication in the troubled neighborhood.

The scene of the pit bull attack was a small, triangular patch of land chopped off from the rest of Aliso street when U.S. Highway 101 was built, becoming just one of many pockets of blight hidden along the freeway and the Union Pacific railroad tracks.

Just off the southbound Milpas Street freeway entrance, the area had become littered with junk cars, discarded batteries and clumps of brush and bamboo, hiding even the nearby freeway from view. Since the opening of the city's largest homeless shelter, offering hot meals and winter beds for 230 people, the neighborhood also had become a magnet for wandering alcoholics and the mentally ill.

One of four major homeless facilities in Santa Barbara, Casa Esperanza was the result of years of controversy and backroom politics over how best to serve the city's estimated 2,000 homeless residents and others just a step away.

As recently as the late 1980s, activists labeled Santa Barbara "the worst city in the nation" when it came to helping the homeless. Laws banned sleeping outdoors at night and spitting on State Street, where most of the homeless gathered. Some merchants routinely sprinkled lye in their trash bins to keep the homeless from eating garbage from them.

The solution to the image problem, blending compassion and practicality, was to figure out less draconian ways to keep the homeless away from the city's ritzy shopping and tourist areas along State Street and the beach. The shelter was the magnet that would do it.

Unlike the merchants along State, the business community along Milpas Street, closest to the shelter, lacked the clout and organization to draw attention to their rising discontent. Some of the homeless who came just to eat tended to hang out, drink alcohol, defecate on their property and aggressively panhandle their customers.

Merchants complained, but mainly among themselves. The city never made an effort to judge any potential negative effects from the shelter, officials now concede. Neither did shelter officials.

But one local property developer, Robert Ludwick, protested to Barnwell after he was seated this year as one of the city's three new council members.

Ludwick had his own interests in the unpaved western tip of Aliso Street. He owned property on one side of the abandoned parcel and had tried for several years to gain access rights to use it as a rear entrance for delivery trucks serving the businesses renting from him.

But Ludwick also had broader concerns. After Barnwell agreed to have lunch, he took the new councilman on a tour of blighted homeless camps and spoke about the problems being caused by loitering on the streets surrounding Casa Esperanza.

Barnwell would return five times, and it was the final visit -- when he got out of his car and wandered into the area alone -- that led to his battle with the pit bulls.

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