A Walk Through Santa Barbara’s Tent Cities

Effective Plans Exist to Bring People Without Housing off the Streets, but Stakeholders Need to Help

Along Pershing Park’s parking lot wall stretches a long line of tents, plastic tarps, brightly colored beach umbrellas, folding chairs, sleeping bags, and shopping carts. | Credit: Nick Welsh

Marge Cafarelli is nothing if not outspoken. But for a few moments this Tuesday morning, words would fail her.

In recent months, Cafarelli — a successful entrepreneur, developer and owner of the Public Market in downtown Santa Barbara — has been greeting the dawn by visiting homeless encampments (as they are invariably called) along the railroad paths and the city’s waterfront. Tuesday, it was Pershing Park, where Babe Ruth famously hit a home run while barnstorming his way through Santa Barbara back in 1927. There would be no Sultan of Swat, however, this morning — no echoes of his booming bat or his cheering crowds — as the sun’s warmth started to battle the early chill.

Although Marge Cafarelli first moved to the South Coast in the late 1970s, she only recently began focusing on Santa Barbara’s ongoing dance with homelessness. | Credit: Nick Welsh

Along Pershing’s parking lot wall stretched a long line of tents, plastic tarps, brightly colored beach umbrellas, folding chairs, sleeping bags, and shopping carts, all crammed tightly and disjointedly together amid a cluster of old bicycles. Residents were beginning to stir, emerging from their tents. A woman with hair a color hovering between red and purple got out of the car where she’d been sleeping and began punching the air and swaying.

It was early, but already a young man and woman — both wearing official-looking orange plastic vests and exuding an air of urgency — began their rounds. They were working with Doctors Without Walls. Two men in blue municipal-looking vests and wielding large shovels were hoisting mounds of debris by the camp sites into large plastic bags.

“When you see this,” Cafarelli began, pointing to Pershing Park’s sprawling shantytown, “alongside places that rent for $1,000 a night …” She never managed to finish the sentence.

Although Cafarelli first moved to the South Coast in the late 1970s, she only recently began focusing on Santa Barbara’s ongoing dance with homelessness. In 2019, she returned from a trip to Africa both astonished and inspired by the intensity of poverty and grace she experienced there. She put the Public Market up for sale and became passionately engaged with SB ACT, a faith-inspired nonprofit seeking to coordinate efforts of the 45 nonprofits currently trying to help people without housing.

Free fresh produce is made available in a red, white, and blue cart on a side street near the Cabrillo Boulevard Veterans’ Memorial Building. Of the many sub-groups targeted for homeless assistance, homeless vets tops the list.  | Credit: Nick Welsh

To that end, SB ACT’s organizers, Jeff Shaffer, Barbara Anderson, and Rick Sander, have reached out to neighborhood residents, businesspeople, and property owners — stakeholders frequently most impacted and aggrieved by homelessness — in hopes of enlisting them in constructive efforts to get people off the streets. 

Cafarelli has participated in many Zoom meetings trying to hash out what are called regional action plans, or RAPs for short. At one, she broke down and cried while describing the conditions under which human beings were living in along the railroad tracks. “We are the richest nation in the world” and one of the richest counties in the country, she said. “And yet we have this,” pointing to the tent city billowing and flapping at Pershing Park. 

The Zoom sessions have proved long on talk and short of action, leaving Cafarelli — a very direct, get-things-done person — impatient and frustrated. Simply wishing homeless people weren’t here, she noted, is neither an effective public policy nor humane. Much of her ire, however, is directed at local government. “Where is the leadership?” she asks. Homelessness, she says, is “Santa Barbara’s dirty little secret.”

Except, of course, everyone knows about it.

Last week, the county supervisors spent about three hours engaged in a massive institutional brain dump on the issue, detailing all the things that the county is currently doing and all the things that still desperately need to be done. Both, it turns out, are a lot. Where homelessness is concerned, the glass is simultaneously half full and half empty.


Get the top stories in your inbox by signing up for our daily newsletter, Indy Today.


First, the bad news. In the past two years, the number of homeless people in Santa Barbara County has increased from 1,803 to 2,195. The number living in some form of shelter has dropped significantly — mostly because of COVID — from 670 to 407. In the City of Santa Barbara, 43 percent of the homeless are living in their vehicles. The number of unsheltered individuals connecting with county agencies seeking service jumped by about 1,200. The number of children unhoused increased by about 150. 

The above dwelling is one of many along the railroad paths and the city’s waterfront.  | Credit: Nick Welsh

With shelters either shut down or restricted, the number of people living in outdoor camps has grown astronomically, almost doubling in four years to 437 in 2020. County fire officials reported having to put out three fires at encampments each month. Many other calls to service involved drug overdoses and emergency medical treatment. So concerned are fire officials that they’ve taken to conducting inspections of these campgrounds, 21 of them last year.

Based on guidelines issued by the Center for Disease Control, these camps are not to be disturbed during the pandemic. But in Isla Vista, four parks were deemed fire hazards and public health risks and effectively shut down as campsites. In their place, a clustered community of 20 prefab homes made by Pallet were installed at a cost of $1 million for six months of supervised management. Whether the houses will be dismantled on June 30 is not known. 

The good news is that in 2020, 585 homeless individuals were actually transitioned from the streets into permanent housing. Last year, 55 new units of homeless housing was either built or is nearing completion. Project Roomkey, an emergency program to house medically fragile people in hotel rooms, provided 20,698 bed-nights of respite, numbers expected to increase as the age restrictions just dropped from 65 to 55. Better yet, reimbursements for participating hotels have gotten more enticing. Even the camp sites — home to some of the most “service-resistant individuals” — has witnessed a surge in “successful exits.”

These successes, Supervisor Gregg Hart exclaimed, should be celebrated. The public needs to appreciate, he said, that progress is actually being made. That’s especially true if — as is widely rumored — Santa Barbara voters could soon be voting on a bed tax or sales tax to fund homeless services. In 2020, more than $42 million was spent on various homeless relief efforts by a myriad of Santa Barbara government agencies and nonprofits combined. Of that, the County of Santa Barbara accounted for nearly $20 million. By any reckoning, these are big numbers. 

In the past two years, the number of homeless people living in some form of shelter has dropped significantly — mostly because of COVID — from 670 to 407. | Credit: Nick Welsh

The challenge is that much of this money came in the form of onetime funding from state or federal grants. Typically, these grants come with a mass of restrictions and with tight use-it-or-lose-it deadlines. In other words, it does not qualify as a reliable funding source needed to sustain the ongoing — and expensive — grind required to do effective homeless outreach, let alone build the permanent supportive housing everyone agrees is necessary for such programs to work. With the loss of state redevelopment dollars — that formerly funded such efforts — city and county governments find themselves increasingly forced to underwrite the cost of such programs. Often, that translates into local tax measures.

Bottom line, the work of getting people off the streets is labor-intensive. The words “plodding” and “slow-slog” got tossed around and for good reason. Typically, it takes 14 contacts for an outreach worker to convince someone to agree to accept help. Building trust, it turns out, cannot be rushed.

Once a person signs on as a client, it takes several months to get them “document ready” and another 90-120 days to get a client housing somewhere. Keeping most clients in housing requires an infusion of services as well.

Jeff Shaffer and SB ACT’s other organizers have reached out to neighborhood residents, businesspeople, and property owners in hopes of enlisting them in constructive efforts to get people off the streets. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Jeff Shaffer of SB ACT reported that one outreach program targeting a two-block stretch of State Street was able to help a quarter of chronically homeless people living on the street to find housing within 60 days. Similar outcomes, he said, can be achieved along the waterfront, Milpas Street, Alameda Park, and West Beach. “We know what to do,” he said. “We know how to do it. We don’t need a 10-year plan.” 

With his 15 years’ experience of working with people without housing, Shaffer enjoys rare credibility both with service providers and members of the business community. Yet even Shaffer is growing somewhat panicked by how few stakeholders are accepting the need for the programmatic infrastructure outlined in his multiple RAPs. “We’ve been really listening to their concerns for a while now,” he said. “Defecation, theft, vandalism. But now we need them to step up and show us some love.”

Shaffer and SB ACT are hoping to establish “navigation centers” in every district in the city. Hotel owners need to offer rooms. Owners of parking lots need to participate in the highly acclaimed Safe Parking program. “We are on the brink of a lot of businesses having to close,” he said. “What happens when their employees lose their job. Hundreds of new folks could find themselves suddenly homeless.”

Marge Cafarelli doesn’t need any convincing. She’s all on board with the SB ACT game plan. Whether that’s good enough, time will tell. “I don’t have all the answers,” Cafarelli said, gazing out at Pershing Park. “I just know animals live better than these people. And that’s not okay.”

Katherine Swartz contributed reporting to this story.


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+.

Login

Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.