Kimberly Kiefer remembers back when blue herons — large, gangly and graceful — ruled the roost in Isla Vista’s Anisq’Oyo’ Park. Now, she says, the herons have flown the coop. Instead, Kiefer lamented she now watches crows and seagulls duke it out for dominance — and food scraps — in the herons’ stead.
Kiefer took over as new executive director at the Isla Vista Recreation & Park District (IVRPD) just this February, less than a month before the COVID curtain came crashing down. Since then, COVID has changed everything, the human ecology of Isla Vista’s parks even more than the avian brand.
Before the onslaught of COVID, 10-15 homeless people claimed Anisq’Oyo’ Park as their home, many living in tents. Since COVID, those numbers have mushroomed, and last week there were as many as 60. As the park has become a sprawling tent city, Kiefer and others have expressed growing alarm that the congestion and debris posed an immediate health risk to its inhabitants as well as a public health nuisance to the community.
This past weekend, Kiefer began the politically charged process of moving the unsheltered residents out of Anisq’Oyo’ Park after having served them written notice on December 9. The timing — just one week before Christmas — could not have been more awkward, particularly as nighttime temperatures have grown bitterly cold. Worse yet, all South Coast homeless shelters had just been placed in lockdown and quarantine mode because of active COVID cases, meaning no shelter beds are currently available to those on the streets.
The good news, however, is that Kiefer had teamed up with Sylvia Barnard of Santa Maria’s Good Samaritan Shelter and Kimberlee Albers, the County of Santa Barbara’s de facto homeless czar. Barnard brings with her 23 years of serious boots-on-the-ground experience providing shelter to homeless people, and Albers brought with her enough federal emergency homeless funding necessary to buy 20 tiny homes — 8′ by 8′ — to create a tiny-home village on the parking lot shared by the IVRPD and the I.V. Community Center. Each of those tiny homes — assembled on-site — can house two individuals if they are related. By the end of the weekend, 17 of the homes had been occupied.
For those who could not — or chose not to — move into the tiny homes, Kiefer and the IVRPD opened up People’s Park, located just 200 feet away, creating well-delineated, 12′-by-12′ sites spaced six feet away from each other.
Thus far, the transition appears to be going smoothly despite trepidations that some inhabitants of Anisq’Oyo’ Park would refuse to move. Three dumpsters were provided to handle unwanted refuse. IVRPD is offering storage space so that those displaced can hold onto possessions they want to keep.
Residents of the new tiny-home village are getting three meals a day, not to mention digs with heat, lights, and outlets where they can recharge their phones and tap into the internet. Showers and porta-potties are provided. And they are being bombarded by service providers from up to 68 agencies working to help the new residents into more permanent housing.
Good Samaritan will provide 24-hour security, four staff members during the day, three in the evening, and two late at night. No drugs or alcohol will be allowed on premises. There’s no rule that residents can’t be intoxicated, though Good Samaritan runs a nearby sobering center, which has treated 300 people since February, 67 percent of whom were homeless.
Activists with Food Not Bombs cited these rules and the strong security presence as reason for concern about the new plan. Some of the residents may bristle at the rules and security presence, argued Gina Sawaya with Food Not Bombs. If they settle elsewhere, she argued, they might spread problems that are now contained. She also argued the homeless people themselves should have had more of a voice in the plans.
Food Not Bombs collected 800 signatures on a petition to retain the tent city at Anisq’Oyo’ Park. Sawaya said she found many of the safety concerns raised about the park overblown. “I can tell you as a woman, I walk by there every day, and I don’t feel unsafe.”
Public safety officials are intensely interested in how the tiny-home village performs. Last week, the association of county fire chiefs expressed extreme alarm over the risk posed by homeless encampments, which have proliferated dramatically throughout the COVID crisis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines stating that such camps should not be disturbed or broken up, as they provided places where those without shelter could shelter in place. But as the number and size of such encampments has grown, so too has the number of fires related to their existence.
At last week’s fire chiefs meeting, they claimed encampments have been responsible for four fires a month countywide. One resulted in serious injuries to one of the occupants. But with the number of new COVID cases off at a gallop, no realistic alternatives to the camps exist.
For Kiefer, the challenges are immediate. The parks need to be open and accessible to all Isla Vista residents, not just those without homes. Anisq’Oyo’ is one of only four parks with kids’ playground equipment. With schools shut down, children need as many play spaces as possible. Anisq’Oyo’ Park has not been watered in nine months; its flora and fauna are dying. The irrigation system is in need of serious repair that can’t be done with the park occupied by tents.
“And I’m not going to be the park director to turn the sprinklers on the homeless,” Kiefer said.
Last week, she noted, there were two near-deaths from drug overdoses. Given the congestion of the tents and the volume of debris, she and others have reported, EMT workers had a hard time finding the tent and an even harder time providing aid to the overdose victims. Three adults had to be enlisted to help move one of the bodies to the sidewalk so aid could be administered.
Besides the overdose cases, county officials have charged human trafficking has taken place at Anisq’Oyo’ Park, as well as drug dealing. And if a fire were to break out there, the risk of serious harm would be high.
In the meantime, Kiefer has no expectations that the blue herons will be returning to Anisq’Oyo’ Park anytime soon. As for Barnard, she said the challenges posed by unsheltered people during COVID will only grow more daunting. “With the economy and with COVID, it’s just going to get worse,” she warned. “More and more people are going to encampments.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Isla Vista Recreation & Park District (IVRPD) as the Isla Vista Parks & Recreation District (IVPRD).
This article was underwritten in part by the Mickey Flacks Journalism Fund for Social Justice, a proud, innovative supporter of local news. To make a contribution go to sbcan.org/journalism_fund.