Santa Barbara County Fire Marshal Rob Hazard declared homeless encampments in three Isla Vista parks to be fire hazards and gave the Isla Vista Park and Recreation District (IVRPD), which requested the inspections, until November 20 to devise an appropriate response.
Two of the parks, Hazard determined, posed fire danger because the brush and vegetation nearby was dry and flammable. Those parks are the Camino Corto Open Space and the Del Sol Vernal Pool Reserve.
More problematic, Hazard found, was the proximity of tents and other accumulated stuff at Sueño Orchard Park, described as “densely cluttered.” There, Hazard found that the homeless encampments were erected directly next to a wooden fence from which there was no appreciable set-back from the next-door neighbor. That house, Hazard added, was wooden as well.
In the event of a late-night fire, Hazard expressed concern that the house could be fully engulfed in flame well before residents could escape and firefighters could arrive to put the fire out. Hazard also worried that the Sueño Park occupants could find themselves trapped in the event of a fire and not be able to escape given the “excessive amount of debris and lack of defined egress routes.”
Asked how they plan to clear the three camps by November 20, Kimberly Kiefer of IVRPD responded, “IVRPD is not a human services agency and does not have the budget, staff or expertise to expend funds on non-park/recreational activities.” She added, however, that the district “is committed to mitigating the hazards outlined in the [county fire department’s] notice while providing ample notice to and safeguarding the rights and dignity of all impacted encampment residents.”
In recent months, Isla Vista’s parks have increasingly functioned as a de facto outdoor homeless shelter and tent city, as homeless people from Lompoc, Santa Barbara, and other locations have been cleared out of the creek beds and campgrounds they previously occupied due to growing concerns about fires. Hazard — who expressed a keen appreciation for the growing numbers of people without homes in the wake of the COVID pandemic — noted there have been no fewer than 37 fires attributed to homeless people and their encampments this year. Typically, he said, the number is closer to 10.
Not mentioned in any of the official documents to date is Isla Vista’s most dramatic tent city, located in Anisq’Oyo’ Park. There, close to 30 tents have been pitched. It’s only a matter of time, however, before fire marshals inspect that park and make the determination that it, too, poses a danger to the occupants as well as nearby businesses located on Pardall Road.
The issue is politically charged in the extreme. Matching the growing alarm about the public health and safety challenges posed by these growing campgrounds have been humanitarian concerns expressed forcefully and steadfastly by organizations that have traditionally come to the aid of homeless people.
In response, county administrators have hatched a plan to locate a temporary pop-up community of tiny homes — each one varying from 64 to 100 square feet in size, with heat and electricity provided but no running water — in the parking lot of the Isla Vista Community Center. The tiny homes are built by a company called Pallet — hence the sobriquet “Pallet Park” — which start at about $4,900 each and reportedly can be assembled in an hour.
Managing all this would be staff from the Good Samaritan, a homeless shelter and care operation long providing services in Santa Maria and Lompoc. Funding would come from state dollars set aside for emergency homeless relief projects. That funding, however, expires after six months.
If all goes as hoped, that temporary pop-up shelter could open its doors this December. Father Jon Hedges, well known for his work in the Isla Vista community, initially expressed doubt and skepticism about the new pop-up village. But after meeting with Sylvia Bernard of Good Samaritan and checking out how similar programs worked in Riverside County, Hedges said those concerns have been allayed.
“Isla Vista is not going to be The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” he stated, alluding to a famous folk song written in 1928 describing a hobo’s vision of paradise replete with “cigarette trees” and hens that lay “soft-boiled eggs.”
UPDATE: This story was updated on November 3 at 5:30 p.m. with comments from Kimberly Kiefer of IVRPD.
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