File photo of Hollister Police Officer Chris Dooley. Photo by Juliana Luna.
File photo of Hollister Police Officer Chris Dooley. Photo by Juliana Luna.

This article was written by BenitoLink intern Vivian Guadalupe Sierra

On Aug. 1, 2023, at the Community Foundation Epicenter, representatives from public safety officials met with BenitoLink team members to share their concerns regarding safety in San Benito County. Among those concerns brought up was mental health, homelessness and negative attitude toward law enforcement. 

This was the fourth listening session of the Community Vision San Benito County series. 

Participants quickly kicked off the meeting by expressing their concerns over homelessness and residents with unstable mental health.

Rosie Betanio said that over half of all emergency calls are tied to them. Betanio, a Hollister Police Department captain, and Greg Bettencourt, a Hollister Fire Department firefighter, agreed that mental health and homelessness have become increasingly frequent issues for residents and agencies. 

Bettencourt said fentanyl overdoses have surged, deepening the crisis in the county. Betanio said that despite the availability of Narcan (naloxone), a life-saving medication, many individuals don’t know how to obtain it. Bettencourt emphasized the need for improved distribution of Narcan to those who need it most. More information on Narcan is available from the San Benito County Opioid Task Force at 831-637-5367.

Laura Lee, a community member and small business owner, spoke of the lack of education among today’s youth, which she believes contributes to poor decision-making and creates broader public safety concerns.

The group also pinpointed the pandemic’s role in aggravating mental health issues among youth. 

Ashlyn Canez, an assistant chief probation officer, suggested that the blurred lines in laws and flexibility in consequences could be perpetuating a cycle of poor choices including drug use and increase in crime.

Renee Hankla, reentry program manager at the county’s Probation Department, said that this cycle is posing a significant challenge for law enforcement which is already struggling with understaffing. Canez highlighted the dire need for behavioral health services, more funding, and staffing, to deal with the surge in violent incidents and employee retention challenges.

In discussing a worse case scenario, Bettencourt, along with several other participants, said he fears that the Fire Department will see an increase in lives lost to mental health and substance abuse. 

Probation Program Manager John Oliveira said the county could experience a crisis similar to that of large cities where homelessness and substance abuse are widespread. He said a lack of accountability for crimes could tarnish San Benito County’s future. 

Attendees agreed that promoting a safer, more cohesive community would be the best possible outcome. To get there, attendees suggested bolstering community support, expanding resource awareness and adopting appropriate measures.

“We have the resources, but the community is growing and we’re not being proactive, just reactive,” said Bettencourt. 

Hankla also suggested investing time in innovative solutions like a mobile crisis unit and expansion of basic needs like medical services.

Oliveira said multi-generational communication could be key to realizing greater safety and cohesion. He and Bettencourt discussed the disconnection between law enforcement, public officials and youth. They said that shadowing opportunities for public safety personnel and open channels of communication could lead to more informed and effective decision-making.

BenitoLink Listening Session participants said that achieving this vision not only rests in their hands but also in the hands of elected officials.

Attendees urged greater transparency and collaboration between local government leaders and the heads of public safety departments. Bettencourt said an example of the problem can be seen in the traffic circles and speed bumps being installed on Hollister neighborhood roads. He said, “Forty-five seconds of going over a speed bump or around a traffic circle is 45 seconds of someone not breathing. This mounts up when you have several on a single street.”

BenitoLink reported in 2019 about the city’s efforts to address traffic calming on Central Avenue and in 2021 about the city opting to install speed tables on Sally Street and Buena Vista Road and on the Ladd Lane and Southside Road projects starting in 2022. BenitoLink also reported on the 2022-23 Civil Grand Jury’s findings that the speed bumps may negatively impact emergency response times.

Despite multiple concerns, as the meeting came to an end, attendees expressed their hopes for the future of San Benito County. They agreed that by working together and with local decision-makers, San Benito County can rewrite its future story, transforming it into a safer and healthier community for all. They cited improved transparency and the inclusion of workers and community members in the decision-making process in order to achieve a healthier community. 

Several notable results followed the 2011-12 Listening Sessions conducted by the Community Foundation for San Benito County. 

  • The founding of BenitoLink, a nonprofit news organization serving the residents of San Benito County with local and regional news and information
  • The REACH Parks Foundation, which has been central to the development of parks and walking trails in San Benito County
  • The Community Foundation Women’s Fund, which has helped women with financial support and educational programs
  • Local nonprofits such as the San Benito County Farm Bureau identified the need for leaders with a better understanding of agriculture, and worked to bring qualified team members into leadership positions

The 2023 Vision San Benito County Listening sessions are supported by the Calhoun/Christiano Family Fund and the Community Foundation for San Benito County. There are approximately 20 Listening Sessions scheduled throughout September in an attempt to hear about issues and solutions from many small segments of the community. BenitoLink is reporting back the results in articles about each session. 

RSVPs to attend the Listening Sessions are required.

To RSVP, please fill out this form, or email corinnekappeler@benitolink.com

Community Vision San Benito County is a community-wide listening project hosted by BenitoLink and sponsored by the Community Foundation for San Benito County and the Calhoun/Christiano Family Fund.

The BenitoLink Internship Program is a paid, skill-building program that prepares local youth for a professional career. This program is supported by Monterey Peninsula Foundation AT&T Golf Tour, United Way, Taylor Farms and the Emma Bowen Foundation.