Ed Mannon, a 30-year resident of Santa Barbara’s streets and once a mainstay of the local homeless rights community, died from head wounds he sustained while riding his bike downtown on Monday. “It was a freak, random accident,” said his attorney Robert Landheer. Although the investigation into Mannon’s death is not complete, Landheer said there’s no evidence his longtime client was hit by a car. He appears to have crashed the bike on his own, perhaps because of a stroke. Mannon bought the bike just hours before the crash. He was taken to Cottage Hospital where surgeons spent four hours operating. Mannon, 62, was not wearing a helmet and never woke up. Had he lived, he would have turned 63 next Tuesday.
In person, Mannon was frequently loud, blustery, and relentlessly profane. But lurking behind his ever outspoken façade was an acute intelligence and very perceptive student of the local political scene. While Mannon’s closest friends concede he was often a nuisance, they saw him more as a fiercely independent soul whose spirit could not be confined by the standard guidelines. “He was honest, loyal, and protective,” said Nancy McCradie, a longtime homeless advocate who met Mannon when she first hit the streets in 1980. “And that’s kind of rare.”
When homeless activism really took off in Santa Barbara during the mid-1980s, Mannon was at its epicenter. He was a fixture at the Legal Defense Center, which lead the successful charge to secure for homeless people the right to register to vote even though they had no “fixed domicile,” as election law then required.
For many years, Mannon was a regular speaker at Santa Barbara City Council meetings, inveighing against the systematic campaign of persecution and harassment he charged the police were waging against the homeless. He had a keen eye for injustice, said Landheer, and was never one to look silently the other way. Mannon frequently hung out by the Moreton Bay Fig Tree by the railroad depot. When Mannon saw police about to arrest or cite his friends, he reportedly would unleash his pit bull, Spot, to provide them a distraction.
Police returned the favor by “arresting” Spot for biting two men who Mannon insisted had tried to steal his radio. Because Spot had bitten before, authorities demanded he be euthanized. Several prominent attorneys came to Spot’s defense — and Mannon’s too — filing numerous legal appeals. Ultimately, the case became a cover story for the Wall Street Journal and garnered Santa Barbara considerable national media coverage, none of it to the city’s advantage. Ultimately, Spot got a reprieve and was allowed to live out his days either in Santa Maria or Ventura.
Later, Mannon and his dogs would again be the subject of considerable media attention, this time when one of his dogs — Sarah — bit then Santa Barbara City Councilmember Brian Barnwell. Barnwell at the time was patrolling homeless camps on the Eastside in the company of a local developer. Mannon was one of several homeless people living there. Keeping Mannon company was his dog Sarah, also a pit bull, and her puppies. Mannon insisted at the time that he warned Barnwell not to enter the property. Accounts vary, but at some point Sarah rushed Barnwell and Barnwell kicked at Sarah. The councilmember wound up sustaining several bites in the exchange, not to mention wounded pride. Mannon sustained several blows by Barnwell, then wielding a folding patio chair, while trying to get his dogs under control. Ultimately, the camp would be razed.
Mannon was a child of privilege, his father a successful corporate attorney specializing in real estate transactions. The oldest of six siblings, he grew up in Orinda, California. From an early age, Mannon was bedeviled by significant mental health and behavioral challenges. Whatever his diagnosis, McCradie said her friend — nicknamed “Crazy Ed” on the streets — experienced lifelong difficulties controlling his adrenaline. In hopes of getting Mannon treatment, his parents sent him to Santa Barbara where he was enrolled in the Devereux school for kids with serious behavioral problems. After that, he would go back north to visit his family, but never to live. Santa Barbara became his home.
McCradie remembers Mannon as a talented musician who could play saxophone and clarinet. Later in the late 1990s, Mannon took to hanging out at the Folk Mote music store, where he soaked up everything he could learn about traditional Irish music. Over time, he became an expert on the subject and would make insightful recommendations to the staff who schooled him. He took up guitar, as well, though with his beat up, weather-worn fingers, the instrument posed challenges. He enrolled in guitar classes with Adult Education, only to be told by the instructor he needed to clean up if he wanted to attend. Mannon did just that, even getting dentures to fill the numerous gaps in his mouth. While Mannon never mastered the guitar, he worked hard at it. And he took up songwriting. These musical efforts reportedly came to the attention of a Hollywood producer, who Mannon told friends paid him $25,000 for the rights to his life story.
Mannon, however, did not stay well-scrubbed for long, squatting with friends, sleeping under bleechers by the zoo, on abandoned front porches, or in well concealed encampments. He did not drink much, but he smoked copious quantities of marijuana. Along the way, he received many citations, mostly for illegal camping and some for pot. In the 1980s, Mannon and Landheer challenged the city’s illegal camping ordinance, availing themselves to what is known as the “necessity defense.” As long as the city’s shelters were full, they argued, and there was no place else for Mannon to go, City Hall could not legally ticket him for illegal camping. Two cases were consolidated into one trial. The jury wound up splitting the baby in half, finding in Mannon’s favor on one count and against him on the other. Regardless of the verdicts, Mannon remained uncompromisingly defiant of such rules to the very end.
Life on the streets is notoriously rough. At various times, Mannon packed a hand gun, carried a 14-inch knife, or kept the company of loyal watchdogs. McCradie remembered Mannon leading a pack of about 30 street people armed with sticks to the home a drug dealer, demanding that he return a camera he stole from an addict. The camera was returned without incident. Mannon, for all of his toughness and bluster, appears to have been relentless stalked and repeatedly beaten by a well-known street person with whom he’d had a bad falling out. In one instance, Mannon was beaten with either a hammer or a chain; one of his eyeballs had to be stitched back into its socket. Mannon would not divulge the name of his assailant to the police and expressly forbade anyone else from doing so.
About three years ago, Mannon let it be known to Sharon Byrne of the Milpas Community Association that he wanted to come in from the cold and asked her to do what she could to find him a place. That Mannon and Byrne were on speaking terms is remarkable by itself. Byrne had lead the susccessful effort to run homeless people like Mannon out of the Cabrillo Ball Field, which at that time had become a popular roosting spot. To the extent Mannon and Byrne spoke, it was when Mannon yelled at her from across the street. By coincidence, the two adversaries share a birthday, and three years ago, Byrne made a point to give Mannon a piece of cake her daughter made for her. As the two talked, they discovered they shared similar personality traits — they are both headstrong, stubborn, and outspoken. Both were critical of how the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter was run. While Mannon was a firebrand where the politics of homelessness was concerned, he was pretty conservative in his overall views. Byrne said he described himself as a “radical conservative.” McCradie described him as “a Republican from way back,” adding later, “come on, he’s a millionaire homeless person.”
Thanks to the intervention of Santa Barbara Police Officer Keld Hove, Mannon got a room in the New Faulding Hotel. “He loved it,” Byrne said. “He liked having a warm room and a warm bed.” About that time, Mannon intervened when two elderly tourists were being harassed by a young urban traveler on State Street. Whether Mannon “beat the crap” out of the young man, as he claimed at the time, is not clear. But he kept the man from leaving until the police arrived. For this, he was nominated for a medal of commendation by some of the same officers with whom he’d feuded over the years.
Ultimately, Mannon left the New Faulding. He wanted to smoke pot in his room and house rules forbade this. In the meantime, the unlikely friendship between Mannon and Byrne deepened. His was a frequent — and mostly unannounced visitor — at Byrne’s downtown home. Byrne’s daughter liked Mannon. Byrne’s dog positively loved him. “He was like the crazy uncle we adopted. Yes, he’s eccentric and irritating at times, but I love him,” Byrne said. “I know that if I ever needed anything, Ed would have killed himself trying to make that happen.