For nearly 20 years, the outdoor grounds of Trinity Episcopal Church were a safe harbor for the homeless at night, a private property where they could bed down without being ticketed and kicked out. But as of this Wednesday, the unofficial sanctum on the corner of State and Micheltorena streets is no more, closed to campers after their numbers became too many and a select few mistreated the space offered them.
“It simply became untenable,” said Pastor Mark Asman, a long-serving homeless advocate. It used to be that only a handful of people would utilize the parish grounds, he explained, but in recent months, 20-30 started sleeping there. That led to a number of problems: Trash and human waste were left on the property more often, and church neighbors started to complain about panhandling and general misbehavior. “There was no one person or one incident that caused this,” said Asman. “It just didn’t work anymore.”
When it opened as a warming center two weeks ago during inclement weather, the church hosted a dinner and told its homeless guests of the decision. “They were very understanding,” said Asman. “They knew it was going to happen.” In the days following, an eight-page packet with information on shelters and programs was distributed. Members of the restorative policing program, as well as service providers, have also been on hand to try to funnel the homeless toward appropriate agencies.
A system of self-regulation the overnighters had in place to keep in good stead with Trinity and the police simply broke down, according to homeless people interviewed Tuesday night. Indeed, Lieutenant James Pfleging with the S.B. Police Department said that officers, until recently, rarely responded to incidents at the church. From now on, they will issue citations to anyone found sleeping on the grounds after dark.
“I saw it coming,” said 36-year-old David Fortenbury, a self-described traveler from Florida who’s pitched a tent on the side of the church for the last two months. He said word of mouth, coupled with a lack of available beds at area shelters, made Trinity a too-popular destination. “Most of us respected this place and treated it right,” he said. “But some didn’t, and now we’re all paying for it.” Without a place to stay, Fortenbury and a few of his neighbors — including Oregon natives Jesse Williams, 24, and his girlfriend, Erica Johnson, 21 — plan on migrating to a Carpinteria campground until they figure out their next move, he said.
Randy, 49 years old, has been homeless off and on since he was 16, when he ran away from an alcoholic and abusive father. Sleeping at Trinity for a short while but in town for years, Randy said the city might consider organizing — similar to its safe parking program — a safe sleeping zone. And rather than waste money on ticketing and jailing homeless people, he said, resources should be focused on providing more mental-health care and expanding shelter services. “Like the rich aren’t going away,” he said, “the poor aren’t going away.”
Randy said he’ll head to Casa Esperanza or the Rescue Mission in the coming days, but he doesn’t expect there will be a bed for him at either place. And those options, he explained, aren’t attractive for him and many other homeless people. Limited space, dwindling supplies — backpacks, coats, hygiene products, etc. — and burnt-out staff at the shelters deter many from seeking help there, he said. “It’s kind of like going to a used-car lot,” he said. “Things look good on the outside, but inside, it sucks.”
As Randy thought about when he should cash in his bags of collected cans and bottles so he can stash his shopping cart if he gets in a shelter — “I’d rather recycle than beg,” he explained, “because I feel like I’m earning the money” — Fortenbury hoped aloud that another church might provide a place for the homeless to lay their heads at night. In the meantime, he said, he wanted Trinity to know how appreciative he was of what it offered for so long. “Thank you for letting us stay here,” he said. “It’s been a blessing.”