Santa Barbara County Fire Marshal Faces a Tough Summer

Homeless Encampments Have Grown in Numbers and Dangers

Above, County Fire responds to the July 13, 2020 fire started near a homeless camp off the freeway in Goleta. | | Credit: Daniel Bertucelli/S.B. County Fire (file)

In conversation, Rob Hazard typically radiates a can-do competence coupled with a gruff ebullience. These days, he’s depressed. Or so he says. “I can’t believe this is what we’ve devolved to,” Hazard exclaimed. As the County Fire Marshal, Hazard spends much of his time these days dealing with issues of homelessness. In the past year, the County Fire Department responded to 448 homeless-related incidents. Of those, 47 were fire related; the others involved emergency calls for service — drug overdoses and other medical emergencies.

With fire season now upon us and Governor Gavin Newsom having just officially declared a drought in 41 of California’s 58 counties, the issue of encampment fires is looming front and center. Mostly, Hazard described last year’s homeless fires as nuisances. But because many are started in the strip between the railroad tracks and the freeway, they pose the potential for real damage. The smoke, Hazard explained, can freak out motorists. This, in turn, can trigger multicar pileups.

To date, this hasn’t happened. Instead, one woman who lived in an encampment along Calle Real by the Maravilla retirement community got seriously burned. Mostly, Hazard described fighting these fires as “gross.” There are frequently an abundance of syringes, he said, and human excrement everywhere. “There’s an incredible amount of toxic waste. It’s like living in a landfill. It’s hideous,” he said. “It’s depressing.”

In a normal world, Hazard said, people occupying such encampments would simply be moved elsewhere. But with COVID, that’s not possible. And there’s no place for them to go. Because of COVID, the shelters are at reduced capacity, and the County Jail isn’t interested. If Hazard had his way, the powers-that-be would locate a flat piece of land — or perhaps asphalt — within walking distance of a 7-Eleven; equip it with porta-potties, water, and electricity; and open it up as an outdoor shelter. That, he understands, is not remotely in the cards.

In the City of Santa Barbara, however, plans are afoot to open a significant number of indoor-outdoor units in a downtown parking lot using structures the size of shipping containers that would house multiple units. Hatching these plans for “interim supportive housing” is a new statewide nonprofit called “DignityMoves” started by the Young Presidents Organization, a group of individuals who made it to the top of their respective businesses before the age of 45. The organization has a similar proposal slated for San Francisco; neither has yet to make it off the drawing boards. The organization has hired a major architectural firm, however, to make sure whatever gets built is well designed and fits into its neighborhood.

In the meantime, the 20 white, 64-square-foot Pallet homes that provided shelter for 40 people who would otherwise have been squatting in one of several Isla Vista parks will soon be pulling up stakes and moving to Lompoc in June. The county supervisors approved $320,000 to move the homes to Good Samaritan’s Bridge House, a mainstay in the shelter world since 1980.

County Supervisor Bob Nelson — whose district includes Lompoc — worried that Isla Vista’s homeless problem would be exported to Lompoc. But he changed his mind because of Good Samaritan’s stellar track record and because some of the Pallet homes can be used by the many people now residing in the Santa Ynez riverbed. And they allow people with dogs to live there, which is not possible in most other homeless housing.

In the meantime, Isla Vista Recreation & Park District is struggling to come to terms with the large encampment that has expanded in People’s Park. When Fire Marshal Hazard banned Isla Vista encampments, citing the fire threat to either those living there or their immediate neighbors, he allowed People’s Park to remain as a de facto outdoor shelter for those determined to stay outdoors. In the past year, People’s Park’s numbers have grown, and with them more fires. And the number of overdoses skyrocketed. Calls for law enforcement increased by more than 100 percent, and chop shops for stolen bikes became a cottage industry.

In March, Hazard’s crews showed up with their grading equipment to create 36 individual sites, 12 feet by 12 feet, with six-foot-wide aisles in between. Before they were even through, the aisles had been narrowed back down to allow more tents. It’s only a matter of time before a fence goes up around People’s Park, but only after alternative spaces are made available. “Everybody’s working as hard as they can trying to figure this out,” Hazard said. “But there’s no place to send these people.” No wonder he’s depressed.  


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