Bike of homeless person sleeping at County Administration Building. | Credit: Nick Welsh

SHELTER FROM THE NORM:  It being Monday afternoon, I felt free to ride my bike down State Street without fear of crashing into any errant pedestrians otherwise preoccupied staring at the pale sun. The governor’s shutdown order rendering the better part of 11 Southern California counties instant ghost towns — in response to an avalanche of new COVID cases — had just gone into effect. 

A blustery wind was blowing brown leaves loudly across the pavement. Strange berries were cluttering the gutters. A young couple with rolled up yoga mats strapped to their backs walked in search of a class they would not find. 

Scrawled along the streets were cheerful chalk hieroglyphics. Big, loud “Closed” signs were taped to pink romper room boxes at State and Figueroa that until Sunday functioned as street furniture for the nearby coffeeshop. Down at State and Canon Perdido, architectural renderings bravely imagined an optimistic future where “Outdoor Performance Spaces” and “New Paseos, Courtyards and Plazas” might be relevant.

Whatever drug they were smoking, I wanted some.

Earlier that morning, I’d been walking past the County Administration Building as the people who camp under its eaves got a firm but gentle wake-up call from a firm-but-gentle woman wearing khaki pants. It was time to break down their tents and load up their shopping carts. An older woman wearing a miner’s helmet and a cape imprinted with the words “Santa Barbara” began nudging her walker down the sidewalk. 

Similar scenes were unfolding at the Lobero Theatre, at the Presidio, at the Fiesta 5 Theatre, and pretty much any place there were “Vacant” signs and an open alcove.

Across town, city employees worked to install a new gate to block homeless car campers from making Pershing Park their home. Hotel owners across the street had objected. 

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Maybe we could erect a metal monolith — like the one that was planted, destroyed, and then replaced on top of Pine Mountain in Atascadero — in the middle of State Street. It might lift our spirits a little.

The Atascadero monolith, it turns out, was destroyed by some Orange County zealots who proclaimed “Christ is King” as they did so. Being supporters of Donald Trump — the ultimate in orange — they also chanted, “America First.” Apparently, they don’t like the idea of welcoming aliens of any kind, not from outer space and certainly not from Mexico. 

Following suit, the sheriff of Orange County just announced his department would not be enforcing the governor’s COVID orders. Maybe that’s just the reason COVID rates have spiked so fast and the governor was compelled to issue such orders. 

In the meantime, I am heartened to hear that negotiations between the leadership of the House and Senate might bear fruit on some kind of financial COVID relief bill some time before Christmas. At risk of stating the obvious, what’s taken them so long? 

I remain bitter that “might” might still be an operative verb. If people need to shelter in place, then they absolutely need a place in which to shelter. In California, no fewer than 600,000 renters are at risk of not paying their landlord. Translated into bodies, that’s two million people who could be evicted through no fault of their own. 

Getting back to State Street, Santa Barbara County health officials are pleading with the governor to reclassify Santa Barbara County so that we will be grouped with Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties as a separate region and no longer be grouped with egregious COVID hotspots San Diego, San Bernardino, and Imperial counties for purposes of COVID safety enforcement. 

Compared to them, we have three times as many available ICU beds and considerably fewer sick people. Still, our number of COVID hospitalizations increased by 157 percent since November 18. Of the 922 COVID patients sick enough to be hospitalized since March, half had no other medical conditions — obesity, for example. The supervisors’ request makes sense and might prevent an enormous amount of economic pain. 

In other words, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Even if granted, it wouldn’t take effect for three weeks. By then, Christmas and New Year’s will be in the rearview mirror. 

In the meantime, if we are to be hunkered down in our respective bunkers for the unforeseeable future, a little help from the feds is absolutely essential. Peter Rupert of UCSB’s Economic Forecast Project — perhaps more articulate in such matters — noted that every year at this time, we see a significant bump in retail employment in Santa Barbara: by about 2,000 jobs. With the governor’s shutdown order, we can kiss those jobs goodbye. That’s a whole lot of kissing and with no mistletoe. Rupert added that without a federal stimulus package, there will be “a lot of suffering.” 

At the Rescue Mission, the demand for food is up 15 percent; the shelter is at 95 percent capacity. Erik Talkin at the Foodbank said the demand for food help is up 80 percent since the pandemic struck. Demand dropped a little in the summer, but then spiked again in the past six weeks. During the Thomas Fire, he said, it took a very low-income family 18 months to recover after losing just two weeks of wages. COVID, he said, is much worse. He anticipates the Foodbank will be operating at maximum overdrive for at least 24 months. Talkin said the Foodbank is now on track to distribute 20 million pounds of food this year. That’s twice what it did last year. Anyone interested in helping out, money and or volunteers are always appreciated.

Every day, the staff of the Santa Barbara Independent works hard to sort out truth from rumor and keep you informed of what’s happening across the entire Santa Barbara community. Now there’s a way to directly enable these efforts. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.


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