Credit: Courtesy

TENT CITY TIME?: If the Devil lives in the details — as the theologians say — somebody better go hire a priest; we’re going to need a flock of exorcists.

I say that having watched this week’s gyrations by the Santa Barbara City Council. Under discussion was an emergency fire safety measure to create a short-term outdoor shelter for those people soon to be displaced from encampments along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and Caltrans Highway 101. In our new age of “giga fires” — to steal a line — this forbidding urban ecosystem now qualifies as a high fire zone.

In the month of May, we reportedly had 18 encampment fires. But what really got the council’s attention was the instant inferno — allegedly set by a meth-head arsonist who happened to be homeless — that exploded along the steep, winding, spectacular incline of Loma Alta Drive two weeks ago. Were it not for the instantaneous intercession of  four fire agencies — all miraculously poised for such an eventuality — this could have wiped out the Mesa, where, as some observers have noted, white people live.

What seemed relatively simple two weeks ago got seriously complicated upon further reflection. It always does when the homeless issue is involved. Even people with no backyards don’t want it anywhere near theirs, whatever “it” happens to be.

Suggestions for the new tent city — the gentler appellation being “Safety Center” — included the City Hall Parking Lot, the commuter lot by Castillo and Carrillo streets, and the Louise Lowry Davis Center parking lot near the downtown lawn bowling courts. 

Naturally, there were objections to any downtown location by businesses, property owners, and residents. “It will erode further what we have that’s already eroded,” objected Jim Knell of SIMA Corp, perhaps the Giga Landlord of all Giga Landlords of downtown commercial real estate. Knell’s objections called to mind the old joke about the guy who complained that the food was bad and the portions too small. He noted — correctly, I would say — that a proposed four-month Safety Center is way too short and that the $1 million that is sort of budgeted is way too low. 

City Hall, it turned out, had already shifted gears; the new plan now is to hope that a deal with an as-yet-undesignated motel in an as-yet-undesignated location materializes and that 35 as-yet-undesignated rooms can accommodate 50 soon-to-be-former camp dwellers. 

Everyone agrees this approach is infinitely better for all concerned — safer for the guests, safer for the surrounding community. The success rate in getting people off the streets and into supportive housing also happens to be much higher for people temporarily housed first in converted motels. Another significant consideration: federal and state dollars can be made available to underwrite the expenses of buying, managing, and servicing homeless motels, but no such funding is available for tent cities. 

But here’s the hitch: Such deals — like rainbows and unicorns — have a way of evaporating or exploding upon close inspection. I can think of two recent “deals” that fell through before the ink could even get wet.

That’s not to say such deals are impossible. The County of S.B. is about to sign papers on a $4 million deal to take a former sorority house in Isla Vista — that subsequently became barracks housing for itinerant oil workers cleaning up Platform Holly — and transform its 21 spacious units into homeless housing for 50. (The number 50, coincidentally, is said to be the number of homeless people currently occupying encampments in high fire zones, even though there are said to be 300 people living on the streets of Santa Barbara.)

Meanwhile, a coterie of precociously successful business executives are quietly conspiring to create a tastefully designed tiny-home village on a county-owned property located in downtown Santa Barbara. Neither of these proposals, however, will be open for business in time to house those about to be imminently displaced when their high-fire-zone encampments are “abated.”

Recognizing that wishful thinking does not constitute an emergency action plan, the council scrambled to find a Plan B. Mayor Cathy Murillo pushed for the former drive-in movie theater out by the airport. It’s big; it’s far away. But it would also be seen as an overt act of aggression by the City of Goleta. Santa Barbara owns the airport — and its surrounding property — in much the same way the United States “owns” the Panama Canal.

Goleta would have to retaliate, and before long we’d be caught up in an unwinnable border war. Plus, homeless people would probably not stay there, no matter how many vans and trucks were deployed to take them hither, thither, and yon. That went down on a 5-2 vote. 

Another proposal was to locate the camp on property owned by the county’s Department of Behavioral Wellness using glamping infrastructure generously donated by the previous owner of the El Capitán glamp camp. That, at least, would be within spitting distance of all pertinent mental-health and substance-abuse treatment services, not to mention the Sheriff’s Department should things get too frisky. That too went nowhere fast. 

Some have blamed Noleta’s famously formidable NIMBY elements, but I suspect the lack of state or federal remuneration might have proved more fatal. 

That, of course, left the best worst alternative from the get-go — the old commuter lot at the corner of Castillo and Carrillo streets. Neighbors hate this for all the obvious reasons. But it’s where many of the homeless people already are; it’s where some services are already provided. It’s big, it’s shady, and it’s owned by City Hall. And in a theoretical world — so long as the Good Samaritan shelter operators were to be involved — it could be well managed. 

The council has three weeks to figure it all out. In the meantime, pray for rain. But better yet, call an exorcist.


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