Father Jon-Stephen Hedges, best known for his work ministering to the homeless population of Isla Vista, died Thursday from kidney failure resulting from amyloidosis. Hedges moved to Isla Vista in 1968 to attend UCSB and somehow never left, staying to become one of the longest-serving religious leaders throughout Santa Barbara County and certainly one of the most prominent civic leaders to emerge out of Isla Vista.
In 2016, Hedges ran for a seat on the Isla Vista Community Service District board, whose formation he’d helped champion. It was Hedges who came up with the defining slogan for the campaign to create the district in the first place. It was “No more about us without us,” in reference to Isla Vista’s historic lack of elected municipal control. Hedges was considerably older than any of the other candidates running on the same slate with him, and he liked to joke he was considerably older than three of his slate-mates combined. He managed to eke out a victory in that race, though just barely, winning by only a handful of votes.
In his life, Hedges would work any number of jobs and wore any number of hats; he would work for the county’s Department of Behavioral Wellness and the county’s Housing Authority as a case manager at Pescadero Lofts, which provides 35 units of permanent transitional housing to people getting off the streets. Even after he retired about a year ago, he still maintained office space there. He served as pastor for the St. Athanasius parish in Isla Vista and after the church moved to Goleta, and as a chaplain for the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department. He worked at times as an EMT.
But it would be as a voice for homeless people, however, that he would gain greatest recognition. He was not adverse to the dramatic gesture from time to time if he thought the occasion demanded. At a recent ceremony marking the passing of homeless people during the previous year, for example, Hedges pounded loudly on the big wooden doors of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse as he read the names of those who died.
“He’s a fixture in Isla Vista,” commented Ethan Bertrand, a member of the town’s Community Services District board. “He will be sorely missed by his neighbors, by the community at large, but most of all by people down on their luck.” Bertrand said he was struck by Hedges’s “passion and care,” adding, “I am so grateful I was able to spend time with him.” Hedges, Bertrand noted, was also active with Doctors Without Walls, and he provided crisis relief and grief relief counseling for people throughout the country, traveling over the years to disaster-struck places like Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Jonathan Abboud, general manager of the Community Services District, said he first met Hedges in the aftermath of Elliot Rodger’s shooting rampage in Isla Vista on May 23, 2014. That same year, the block party that is Deltopia erupted into riots. Father Jon was on call for both. Abboud was among those who encouraged Hedges to run for office. “He really believed in this place. He really believed in the greater good of this place,” he said. “And he really believed in the future of this place.”
County Supervisor Das Williams first met Fr. Hedges when Williams was 14, a young kid growing up in Isla Vista. “He was the dad of a girl I had a crush on. It was intimidating,” Williams recollected. “She was intimidating enough, but he was a priest with a collar on.”
Back then, Williams stressed, Isla Vista was intensely polarized politically and culturally. On one side were the hippie families and the students, whose political star was then ascendant; on the other was St. Athanasius Orthodox Church. The hippie student block was passionate about rent control, for example, and the acquisition of fallow land to be used for parkland. The church functioned as center of gravity for longtime residents adhering to more traditional values.
Carmen Lodise, a former Isla Vista activist and the author of the most definitive history of Isla Vista — Isla Vista: A Citizen’s History — said of Father Jon, “I always saw him as a nice guy who ran with the wolves.”
Over time, the two sides became locked in a reflexively oppositional dance. “I thought it was kind of dumb,” Williams recalled. “I thought their self-interests were not that far apart.” There were some notable exceptions. The church would come to acquire what’s known today as Perfect Park, land then regarded as hallowed ground by those for whom the burning of the Bank of America in 1970 was a rite of political passage.
Williams described himself at the time as being a “precocious agnostic who believed in science.” He also had read enough of the Gospel to doubt whether the Bible thumpers he saw were practicing what they preached. But of Father Jon, he said, “He behaved in ways that demonstrated he lived the Gospel,” he recalled. “He did this by being open, by listening, by being compassionate.” Long after the warring factions had either left town or their energies has dissipated, Williams added, Father Jon was still there. “He stayed and kept on trying to make it work. I don’t think anyone has been as engaged in Isla Vista’s community life as long as Father Jon.”
Father Jon worked for the church, he worked for Pescadero Lofts, and he did street outreach, Williams said. “He was doing street ministry long before it was ever systematized. Eventually, the church or the county would pay him to do what he was already doing.”
Hedges, Jonathan Abboud noted, was never one to shy away from the painful work of ministry. After the the 2014 killings, Abboud noted that Fr. Hedges met with the parents of the slain students, offering consolation and solace. In fact, Hedges flew all over the country in the aftermath of other mass shootings and natural disasters, offering local authorities advice on the demands inflicted by mass outpourings of grief. And for Hedges, his work transcended the platitudes and puffery that often accompanies such assurances.
He himself experienced firsthand the violence wrought by those in the grips of chemical excess and psychological imbalance. In May 2016, a 22-year-old student — naked from the waist down — began slamming his body against the Hedges family home. Ultimately, he forced his way in and punched Father Jon in the face more than 30 times before Khouria Hedges, his wife, was able to call 9-1-1. Police found no evidence that Hedges ever knew his assailant — believed to be under the influence of an indeterminate drug — before the attack.
That experience did little to slow Hedges down in his public life. At I.V. district board meetings, he made his presence felt without being bombastic or hogging the microphone. His term expired at the end of 2020. Earlier that year, Hedges was hospitalized with what was initially suspected to be COVID but ultimately turned out be a bad case of pneumonia.
As Isla Vista experienced an outpouring of homeless people in tents occupying its parks, Hedges was torn. When the county Fire Marshal declared three Isla Vista parks to be fire hazards and public health nuisances, Hedges had initial doubts. Ultimately, however, he would support plans to expel the tent dwellers from Anisq’Oyo’ Park so long as they could be offered space in the 20 new Pallet homes being installed in the parking lot of I.V.’s Community Center just a few feet away. At the time, homeless rights advocates with Food Not Bombs opposed this effort, arguing it robbed homeless people of their autonomy and that the public health threat they posed was being exaggerated. What changed Hedges’s mind was the conversation he had with Sylvia Bernard, chief executive of Good Samaritan, the nonprofit that would manage the new Pallet village.
Father Jon-Stephen Hedges died on February 25 at the age of 73.
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