It was a $2.5 million guided tour of a homeless encampment located just off Hollister Avenue near Santa Barbara County’s Juvenile Hall — cleaned out but hardly abandoned — coupled with a look at where many of those displaced by such cleanup efforts might soon go. In this case, that would be the former Super 8 motel in Goleta.
The $2.5 million in question comes from a three-year state grant to clean up as many as 53 homeless camps along the Highway 101 corridor throughout Santa Barbara County; the tour itself was sparked by the ceremonial arrival of Lourdes Castro Ramirez, secretary of the state agency responsible for dispensing that grant, the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency.
Among the many people attending was County Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who said she was struck by how much cleaner and well-kept the homeless encampment was after the county’s initial cleanup blitz. Work crews not only hauled away tons of rubbish, she said, but they also educated the people remaining on how to better dispose of their trash and keep the camp more organized and sanitary. It seems to have made a difference, she said. Hartmann noted the site was much cleaner and the bikes — previously a jumble of frames and tires — were neatly sequestered in one place.
Hartmann said she was also impressed how Castro Ramirez quizzed outreach workers working with City Net — whose job it is to connect those on the streets with services and shelter — about how they dealt with the pressure and stress of work that might seem thankless and difficult.
With high fire season now upon the South Coast, the traditional out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach to such encampments has grown more obviously perilous. In 2020, county fire officials reported 47 fire related calls for service for 21 encampments located along Highway 101 and the railroad tracks. In addition, there were 401 non-fire emergency calls for service. It’s estimated that 99 people now live in the 53 homeless camps identified by county officials. Santa Barbara County was one of 19 recipients applying for a $50 million pot of gold set aside in last year’s state budget for such cleanup purposes. County administrators estimate 200 people could be brought in from the urban wilds for such purposes. This year, Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed expanding that funding to $500 million.
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Last summer, the City of Santa Barbara responded to such conditions by leasing out the Rose Garden Inn in San Roque to homeless people dislocated by City Hall’s campaign of encampment cleanup sweeps for up to six months. The results of that effort — involving some of the most intentionally off-the-grid individuals urban living has to offer in the South Coast — were decidedly mixed. Some got housing; many more did not. And the whole endeavor provided the social media platform Nextdoor endless fodder for incredulity and outrage.
In sharp contrast, the County of Santa Barbara’s Housing Authority recently purchased the Super 8, a 60-room ’70s vintage motel by Fairview and Hollister avenues in old town Goleta for nearly $23 million. Unlike the Rose Garden Inn, stressed John Polansky of the county Housing Authority, the Super 8 will be offering permanent housing, not just temporary shelter. This will give new residents there time to adjust to the sometimes jarring reality of indoor living. Polansky noted how people in encampments are exceptionally disconnected from society at large — often intentionally — and they need help learning how to live with others within four walls. Among the many services they will need, he stressed, was help with conflict resolution.
The Super 8 was purchased with $20 million from the state’s Project Homekey funds and another $600,000 from the City of Goleta, whose councilmembers enthusiastically embraced the program.
“Ninety percent of people in this future housing will be local,” declared Goleta Councilmember Stuart Kasden, who participated in the tour.
“Most people think this is too big of a problem,” said the Housing Authority’s Polansky. Working with partners like CalTrans, the Union Pacific railroad company, City Net, and Good Samaritan shelter operators, Polanksy said there was reason to believe the problem could be solved “and still treat human beings like human beings.”