Each weekday morning, Senior Parks Officer Casey Stone gets into his vehicle and begins his morning rounds in downtown Santa Maria.
Making stops at Simas Park, the Transit Center, Perlman Park and various public areas, Stone and other park officers are the city’s front line in curbing illegal activities involving the homeless and others in the city’s public spaces.
“We do everything from parking enforcement, rule enforcement to law enforcement contacts,” said Stone, a strapping 40-year-old who joined the Recreation and Parks Department four years ago.
A former lawyer who spent three years as a prosecutor in New Mexico, Stone is slated to be the newest recipient of the city’s Going the Extra Mile (GEM) Award on Tuesday, for his work to help address the city’s homeless issues as a park officer.
Park officers — also called City Rangers — carry handcuffs and can issue citations and make arrests, though they rely on other law enforcement to transport suspects to jail. While City Rangers do not carry firearms, they do carry pepper spray, Tasers and batons. There are three or four City Rangers on duty most days, Stone said.
The GEM Award recipient — it was first awarded in 2006 — is chosen by a group of city officials after nominations are accepted from the different departments of city government. Stone is the 34th recipient of the GEM Award, city spokesman Mark van de Kamp said.
In an average month, Stone said he writes around 30 parking-related citations and 15 to 25 for public drinking, smoking marijuana on city property or possession of drugs.
On Monday, Stone walked out of the Recreation and Parks Department office dressed in black slacks and a khaki shirt with a green and yellow “City Ranger” patch on his right sleeve. Getting into a Ford SUV with the City Ranger emblem printed on its side, Stone went on his usual morning rounds, first stopping at the back of the Abel Maldonado Center parking lot, near the gate to Simas Park.
Stone said the people he finds at Simas Park vary from teenagers trying to get out of going to school to the homeless and transient.
“Though the last few contacts I’ve had here have been people on probation who just got out of court and decided to jump the fence over here, hang out and drink alcohol,” Stone said, slightly bemused. “It’s a little surprising when someone’s just out of court.”
One of the reasons Stone was awarded the GEM Award was for the initiative he took in helping clean up homeless encampments in various parts of Santa Maria, van de Kamp said.
“We’ve been involved in a couple of big cleanups that past couple months,” Stone said, including one at the Suey Crossing Bridge. “When we begin to clear an encampment, I start off with letting them know what the rules are — we’ll ask them to clean up, leave the space and then suggest areas where they can go. We normally suggest they check-in with [the Good Samaritan Shelter]. If they don’t want to go there but want meals, we’ll suggest Salvation Army.”
Getting the homeless into one of those facilities is important because of the other services and programs to which the homeless can get connected.
“It’s not just shelter or food — they’re tied into a lot of other services,” Stone said.
According to the 2017 Report on Homeless in Santa Barbara County, there were 338 homeless people in Santa Maria — a 39 percent increase over 2011. Of the 338 homeless, 253 are sheltered and 85 are unsheltered.
“A lot of people we run into in these homeless camps — for whatever reason — they just tell us they’re not interested in these programs. Some of them will say they’re not interested because [the shelter] drug tests. Others say they have a pet animal and they won’t be allowed in with their animal. Some just tell me point-blank, ‘Whatever, I don’t need someone to tell me how to live my life.’”
But around once or twice a year, Stone said he’ll have someone approach him while out on park patrol with good news.
“They’ll say, ‘Hey do you remember me? I used to be the one that was camping out over at Armstrong Park in the bathrooms,’ or ‘I used to be the one cussing you out over at Perlman Park. Just wanted to say thank you, things have turned around and life is going better. You do get success stories but not as many as you’d like.”
After leaving Simas Park, Stone continues on to the Santa Maria Transit Center. The center was the cite of a large amount of criminal activity until the city began taking a more aggressive approach toward enforcement two years ago, Stone said.
“We really had some issues going on at the transit center,” he said. “A lot of people would hang out on the grass here. We’d have drug dealing going on, we’d have fights going on, we’d have a lot of alcohol violations. We worked with the city attorney’s office about imposing some rules that would limit it to people that are here to ride in the facility.
“Before it had turned into a park setting where people were just showing up and hanging out. We had a lot of violations over here — so much that I had residents who live nearby call us and say, ‘Until you can do something about transit, we’re not going to use it anymore because we just don’t feel safe,’” Stone said.
Around two years ago, white signs listing the municipal code went up and park officers got more serious about enforcing rules forbidding loitering, Stone explained.
“I wouldn’t say we take a zero-tolerance approach but close to it,” Stone said. “It’s really helped improve this facility. We patrol it regularly every day and we just don’t have the volume of problems that we did before.”
In addition, City Rangers patrol the area on foot.
“Every time we come over here we’ll do foot patrol because we get a lot of people that’ll come and stash their belongings in these bushes,” Stone said, motioning to a large cluster of bushes in a flowerbed alongside the Transit Center.
Walking into the waiting room in the transit center, Stone makes his way to a man dressed in jeans and a grey-collared hoodie with the hood pulled over his head. Slouched over his knees and burying his face in his arms, the man remains silent as Stone approaches him.
“You doing OK, sir?” Stone says to him. “You alright?”
Still slouched over his knees, the man responds, “Yeah,” before finally lifting his head.
One of the biggest accomplishments of the park officers' work has been the turnaround of Perlman Park on Broadway, Stone said.
“This used to be our most problematic park,” Stone said. “Near Santa Maria Sewing, there was a restroom facility and it was just a nonstop drug den, basically,” Stone said, noting there were used needles from IV-drug use littering the area. “It was so bad over here that people wouldn’t even bring their kids here.”
After removing the bathroom facility several years ago, the issues at Perlman decreased immediately.
“It was night and day,” Stone said.
Most recently, the work of Stone and other park rangers contributed to a new ordinance that forbids loitering in three separate city-owned parking lots: the Town Center East South structure, the Town Center East North structure and the structure next to the Santa Maria Public Library.
“We’d get a lot of people that'd like to hang out in the structures that didn’t have a car there,” Stone said. “There’d be people that would case cars so they could break into cars. People that like to drink and smoke marijuana — we’ve even caught some IV drug users.”
At the library's parking structure, Stone said there had been everything from illegal street racing and drifting to the stairwells being used for drugs.
“A lot of people would bring their kids to the library — which has windows overlooking that passage — and they’d be witnessing it firsthand. It was regrettable we needed to do something like that, but I think it’s definitely helped improve those areas.”
Over the past few years, Stone said the biggest accomplishment has been being able to identify when a new approach is needed, citing the new ordinance and the increased enforcement at the transit center as examples.
“I’m happy to see us accomplishing things but we still have a lot left to do,” Stone said. “It’ll probably always be a work-in-progress.”