The problem of dealing with the homeless is often debated by various groups in Santa Barbara. But we don’t see many homeless people in Santa Ynez Valley, and when we do, they are usually just passing through, standing at a freeway onramp, hoping to be picked up by a sympathetic driver, usually heading north to Santa Maria and parts beyond.

Do the homeless deserve our pity and charity or are they really just freeloaders, living off a society that no longer requires many of its citizens to work?

Personally, my sympathy for their plight is limited. They are often young and look as though they are perfectly capable of working. It may sound heartless, but consider the situation in the City of Santa Barbara, particularly on lower State Street, where they tend to congregate, sleeping in doorways, often accosting shoppers, making outright demands for money, even (in some instances) threatening people.

My wife and I lived in Santa Barbara for seven years before moving to the Valley in 1984. At that time, State Street was a Mecca for shoppers and sightseers, with visitors walking freely up and down the street, shopping, eating in local restaurants, stopping to take pictures – all without care or concern. Try doing that today.

As much as we loved and appreciated living in Santa Barbara, over the years since we left, the area has deteriorated into an ugly and unpleasant gauntlet that must be negotiated by visitors, which has been taking an increasing toll on tourism and visitors to the area.

The result: We don’t go there any more, unless it’s absolutely necessary for some specific purpose, such as an appointment with a doctor. And, we absolutely will not walk on State Street, including the beach side of the freeway, where the homeless are often encamped.

My sense is that the feel-good politicians of the City of Santa Barbara have made it too easy for many people to live off the largess of others in the community.

The “homeless” are not a homogeneous group and they are not all living on the streets for the same reason. Some are mentally disturbed, some work but cannot afford housing in the Santa Barbara market, some live in campers – without a place to park them, some are alcoholics, and there are, of course, freeloaders, who are able to live without working in a society that provides sufficient benefits to live on, such as food stamps and health care.

Santa Barbara has been a magnet for the homeless for years, for a combination of reasons, but two in particular that seem to be the most compelling: One is the temperate weather, which makes it possible to live outside most of the year; the other has been the policies of the City of Santa Barbara, which over the years has provided food and temporary shelter for many of them.

A January 2010 article referred to “homeless professionals and advocates, who held a press conference to call attention to the death of homeless on the “streets of Santa Barbara.”

Apparently the plight of the homeless is now sufficient to have become the basis for a new profession, “homeless advocates.” It is not clear what qualifications are required to become a member of this group, other than an interest in the problem and joining together with others of like mind.

In addition, a December 2010 article noted that “Santa Barbara County Public Health experts are helping those without a home this winter get better access to medical care. A report released in July showed 45 homeless people died between January and March of this year (2010).”

Nancy Shobe, a Noozhawk contributor, interviewed homeless women in Santa Barbara and found, among other things, that California “had twice the national average of homeless people in 2007 – 44 homeless persons per 10,000 (population) versus the nation average of 22.”

Another of her findings was that the homeless are routinely faced with violence on the streets.

The panoply of problems facing the homeless in Santa Barbara can be overwhelming, but my sense is that both the city and the county have not devoted enough thought to the possibility of discouraging them from coming to the area.

Until that happens, we can look for more the same, with greater numbers of homeless moving to the Santa Barbara area. Color me conservative or perhaps uncaring or heartless, or all three – but that’s my opinion.

© 2011 Harris R. Sherline, All Rights Reserved Read more of Harris Sherline’s commentaries on his blog at opinionfest.com