Witnessing and reporting a transient woman being abused in my neighborhood prompts me to reflect on the status of transient programs in Isla Vista and Santa Barbara County. Can expenditures on infrastructure help end our decades long transient problem? Can a “New Deal” fix this mess?
Isla Vista’s New Deal is a microcosm of what does not work. We are the dumping ground for knee-jerk solutions that leave permanent stains. At the moment we have three “villages” — two temporary and one permanent. These are the result of opening parks to illegal camping; building a tiny Pallet village for drug users; and building permanent housing — Pescadero Lofts — for transient substance abusers. Images of our tent village regularly headline discussions of countywide solutions.
Thirty-five years ago, Doonesbury lampooned Santa Barbara for not letting vagrants sleep in the park, and Mitch Snyder threatened to lead a thousand homeless on a Labor Day march. Santa Barbara caved, and now, after decades of flailing aboutm the problem is worse — so bad that State Street businesses are hiring private security and fires burn alongside 101 and into communities.
Meanwhile, California is home to over 27 percent of the nation’s homeless, and Los Angeles has 66,000 — a two-hour bus or car ride away. The message there is that our “numbers” are not reliable and can change within hours. Our response both statewide and local is a decades-old failure.
This problem requires thinking bigger. The federal government owns over 47 percent of California’s total acreage, and Santa Barbara County is home to 98,000-acre Vandenberg Space Force Base. We need a place with existing utility, water, and sewerage to build Pallet villages, trailer parks, and tent towns with bathrooms, recreation centers, and a clinic adjoining the existing hospital.
We could staff it with the 180 groups already battling homelessness in Santa Barbara County. Do this on federal land and we leap the NIMBY barrier, get transients and the mentally ill off the streets, out of our cities, out of parks, and provide crucial rehabilitative care.
We could call it the “Vandenberg Conservation Corps” or “Vandenberg Works Administration” and pay subsistence wages. For those who say, “We cannot afford this” — just look at the millions we already spend on jails and emergency rooms. We are playing with fire — literally — in the midst of valuable real estate owned by taxpayers who, understandably, do not want encampments near their homes. If the goal is to improve infrastructure, then making sure substance-abusing citizens and the mentally ill are not living in cars and public parks should be a top priority.
Band-Aids like Salud Carbajal’s “Naomi Schwartz” bill opening parking lots for overnight camping will die in committee. That valve has a red handle that no sound local government is going to turn. Our transient problem requires a coordinated bipartisan regional response involving the county and cities. Infrastructural czars working together — government — not a herd of disparate nonprofits and do goodies.
Isla Vista’s three villages prevent children and the public from enjoying our parks, expose the defenseless to violent predators, and degrade our community. Building or purchasing permanent housing with no rehabilitative component creates a permanent substance abuse culture that is permanently in our parks. This means that in I.V. your child can never visit a park, walk to school, or go to the store alone.
In June, supposedly, “Hartmannville” — I.V.’s Pallet town — will be dismantled and trucked up to Lompoc. Meanwhile, the erstwhile occupants will rejoin the drug- and crime-infused tent village next door. The county now wants to purchase a sorority building on El Colegio for more permanent housing — “Phi Kappa Hartmann” — another ill-fated non-solution. Sanity prevailed with the Santa Barbara youth hostel, but I.V., as always, is open territory. At least the sorority is a block away from UCSB, mandating that crime be reported under the Clery Act.
Using Isla Vista as a dumping ground will not solve the transient problem. We need a safe, controlled, humane, solution that is not going to be shot down by NIMBY backlash. Do this on federal land with a New Deal that cuts through the city, county, state gridlock that perpetuates this nightmare. Isla Vista’s misguided transient policy highlights the broader need for a resettlement and rehabilitation solution that takes this problem outside of communities.