Photo by Beth Askins
Steaming plates of sweet potato, hot tomato-pasta stew, freshly cut bread, and even ants-on-a-log all made the menu at Sunday night’s Food Not Bombs meal, a vegetarian feast shared with the “houseless” of Isla Vista in Little Acorn Park. As volunteers and houseless chowed down and chatted, watching the full moon rise behind Icon’s “the Loop” on Embarcadero del Norte and Trigo Road, I wondered if Isla Vista’s increasingly upscale face has left its oldest residents by the wayside.
“The more fancy things like this, the more houseless and non-traditional Isla Vista people are being harassed and pushed out,” said Joshua Redman, University of California, Santa Barbara alumnus and leader of the Isla Vista Chapter of Food Not Bombs, a global initiative to serve free vegan and vegetarian food to the public to protest “war, poverty and the destruction of the environment.”
Redman and a handful of volunteers spent the afternoon designing, chopping, and cooking the dinner in the Deshain Co-op kitchen to a list of indie tunes.
“Five years ago there was a lot more people here,” he said referring to the 10 or so people that came out to Little Acorn Park that night for a warm meal. “A lot of people have really disappeared.”
Redman described Isla Vista’s upscale real estate renovation like a vicious cycle for its non-tradition residents. Businesses, he argued, “have an interest in keeping the houseless community away because they think it turns customers off.” But when the same developers put in new, high-end real estate where storage spaces used to be, the people living there had nowhere to go. He said, “Yeah, it’s wasn’t legal, but it did, in effect, keep people off the street.” In ultimately trying to turn them away, he argues, decreasing spaces for lives in transition, makes them “even more invisible.”
Redman is not the only one trying to increase outreach to the houseless, marginalized community in Isla Vista. St. Brigid’s Fellowship is an outreach ministry for the homeless of IV whose services have physically dwindled due to dislocation. The fellowship used to be directed out of St. Athanasius Church, the now abandoned building across from the Loop, where there is rumored to be another similar development in the making. St. Brigid’s was given a temporary lease extension at that location, but when time ran up they lacked the funds to keep the program going and were forced to leave.
Monday night meals still survive, but on the lawn of St. Mark’s Church on Camino Pescadero.
“’Don’t feed the pigeons’ is something we hear a lot,” said Jennifer Ferraez, a licensed clinical social worker and volunteer with St. Brigid’s Fellowship, of the Monday night meals whose food is, really, for whoever needs it. “The variety of people that comes here is really significant,” she said of the 25-30 people who come through on average. “We get students through here periodically who are out of money for the quarter and we welcome them just like anyone else.”
“Lots of marginalized people are treading the line between housed and houseless while college kids are doing whatever they want for themselves,” said Redman, of what he sees as a lack of connection between the student community and the marginalized “latino family.”
“When people ask me about transients in Isla Vista I say ‘What? The students?’” quipped Fr. Jon Stephen Hedges, the assistant Pastor of St. Athanasius Church, which directs St. Brigid’s. “These people have been here for—” he pondered, glancing at the crowd around him, “Gosh, forever. These people are my neighbors. We have a vested interest not only in UCSB but also in Isla Vista,” said the UCSB alumnus. “Unfortunately we have a nostalgia about the parties but haven’t taken it to a mature level where we decide to do something about it.”
“Some students are really good about it,” Redman says of student interactions with “non-traditional” residents. However he argued that “some students see this place like Disneyland, and these are like the characters in it, like they’re not people.”
He said he’s seen students making more irresponsible decisions toward their houseless neighbors in the last five years. When asked how he would like to see things change in IV, Redman gestured toward a man’s cardboard sign reading “Be Thoughtful, Not Thoughtless,” and said, “it’s really that simple.” If it’s so simple, I wondered why there aren’t more groups like this in Isla Vista.
“I like the mission statement of Food Not Bombs, it’s just so simple—equal rights to food for everyone,” said Angela, a biological anthropology graduate student at UCSB, as she helped chop up the organic goods, all of which were donated by venders at the Sunday Organic Farmer’s Market in Goleta. Alongside Angela were about six others, which Redman said was the average size group who cooks, cleans, serves, and then cleans again. His reason for volunteering: “I like food. I like these people.”
St. Brigid’s Meals aren’t much more complicated either; there is a rotating set of church and public health volunteers serving the five basic food groups on plasticware.
“Spending a few hours a week doing things to help out the less privileged isn’t that hard,” said Redman.
“Everyone should see themselves as part of the solution,” Fr. Jon said. Having witnessed both the wreckage of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, he said, “we all have a vested interest in this. In a blink, any one of us could be on the streets and it all looks the same.”
If you’re interested in being part of the solution by volunteering with either of the aforementioned programs, contact Volunteer Coordinator Richard Barre for Monday Night Meals at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Joshua Redman for Food Not Bombs.