As summer approaches, Isla Vista (I.V.) is beginning to buzz with residents eager to return to some semblance of normalcy. Businesses and UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) campus resources are reopening with increasing capacity, and students are restoring vibrancy to their college town. But, this joy comes at a cost for a population that continues to be left out of the conversation — the chronically unsheltered homeless of I.V.
With the push to restore I.V. to its pre-pandemic state, people inhabiting the numerous encampments in I.V. parks throughout 2020 have been relocated to temporary housing or displaced to other parts of Santa Barbara. When the emergency shelters close their doors to people experiencing homelessness in our community this summer, will they go back to being invisible, or will we take action to permanently meet the needs of our homeless neighbors?
Many people in Santa Barbara have shirked the responsibility of addressing homelessness to neighboring counties or the state under the assumption that when COVID-19 hit last March, people would flock to encampments in I.V. from all over the country. However, this is a false assumption that ignores the locality and complexity of the issue.
The emergence of I.V. encampments has made the already existing and increasing homelessness in Santa Barbara more visible to the public. According to Emily Allen; the director of the homeless initiative at Home for Good — United Way; and Wade Volk, the psyche director at Showers of Blessings, Santa Barbara; there has always been some seasonal movement of individuals experiencing homelessness to Santa Barbara, but this migration of people was not responsible for the large, novel encampments that emerged in the last year.
County data and pallet shelter intake surveys reveal that about 80 percent of people experiencing homelessness in I.V. became homeless while they were living in Santa Barbara County. Point-in-time counts from 2019 and 2020 reveal that the total number of people experiencing homelessness — particularly in vehicles — had been increasing in the years leading up to the pandemic and continued to rise throughout 2020.
“With the push to restore I.V. to its pre-pandemic state, people inhabiting the numerous encampments in I.V. parks throughout 2020 have been relocated to temporary housing or displaced to other parts of Santa Barbara.
This data contradicts the belief that the novel encampments in I.V. parks were the result of large groups of people moving to Santa Barbara during the pandemic, and instead suggest that the encampments have simply made unsheltered homelessness in Santa Barbara County more visible to the community. This information affirms that I.V. and Santa Barbara County have a responsibility to allocate resources to people experiencing homelessness as most of them are long-term residents of the county.
Emily Allen; local volunteers; Gina Sawaya and Joanna Le Goulledec; and local business manager, Sky Texier, all hypothesized that the primary reason encampments emerged in I.V. was because people were not being displaced. Government mandates and local management prevented law enforcement officials and railroad companies like Caltrans from disrupting encampments as they had in previous years.
According to Allen, this made homelessness more visible because people that were previously more transient or hidden from public view were able to remain in public places. Local resources from the county and non-profit organizations, the welcoming student community, and the temperate weather all likely factor into why many unhoused people chose to live in I.V. during the pandemic.
But, the pandemic has also exacerbated stress on people experiencing homelessness in I.V. by decreasing access to many critical resources such as food, bathrooms, shelter, electricity, and information. As I.V. begins to return to a new level of normalcy, many of these resources will reopen to people experiencing homelessness. Those who have not been permanently housed by this summer — when the state reopens and temporary emergency shelters close — will return to unsheltered homelessness and continue to rely on these resources.
The question remains: “will we allow them to slink back into the periphery of our daily lives, or take action to address the root causes of their condition?”
Although funding for resources including emergency shelters, food donation services, and organizations managing the coordinated entry system has increased during the pandemic, the rate of people experiencing chronic homelessness has also steadily grown while housing availability falls. These trends suggest that factors such as a sharp decline in affordable housing options coupled with reduced access to basic resources and employment opportunities during the pandemic may be indicative of a severe housing crisis in the county.
“The question remains: “will we allow them to slink back into the periphery of our daily lives, or take action to address the root causes of their condition?”
Temporary aid measures such as the emergency pallet shelter are helpful for the time being, but more permanent solutions require an awareness and acknowledgement of larger, creeping forces at play within the county.
If we want to permanently address the multi-system failure that has resulted in chronic homelessness in our community, we must see homelessness not as a temporary problem or disparate stories of individual failures or misfortune, but rather, as groups of Santa Barbara County residents that fell victim to inequity.
The responsibility falls on numerous institutions both within, and beyond Santa Barbara County to address the ever increasing wage gap and lack of affordable housing if our community wants to effectively and permanently house our unsheltered neighbors in the wake of this pandemic.