For the past nine months or so, Santa Barbra County native Christine Mercado has been living at Isla Vista’s Anisq’Oyo’ Park.
“We didn’t ask for this,” Mercado said on Monday. “It just happened, and it’s not an easy thing to go through at all. It’s hard to understand it unless you’re in it.”
The 52-year-old told Noozhawk she didn’t know where she would be sleeping on Monday night after being evicted from the park in the middle of Isla Vista’s business district.
“Right now, at the moment, I’m not quite sure,” Mercado said. “There are a few options, I think. … But right now, I just want to get through this time and this stressful moment.”
The cleanup began at Anisq’Oyo’ Park Monday morning after people living in a sprawling homeless encampment were notified to remove all personal belongings.
Individuals living in Anisq’Oyo’ Park were asked to remove their personal property from the area by Sunday, and the Isla Vista Recreation and Parks District started the clean-up efforts at 8 a.m. Monday.
Notices announcing the area closure and removal of personal property were distributed throughout Anisq’Oyo’ Park on Dec. 9, according to district officials.
People living in the park were advised that “any property left at this site at the time of cleanup will be removed from the site in accordance with applicable law. Property that is unsafe or hazardous will be immediately discarded.”
On Monday morning, at least 13 tents were set up by homeless people occupying the park — at the outdoor amphitheater and near the playground equipment, as well as the park’s grass along Embarcadero del Mar, and the adjacent area by Embarcadero Hall at the Madrid Road and Embarcadero del Norte intersection.
A shelter made up of tiny pallet homes has been set up in Isla Vista to house homeless individuals, some of whom were evicted from an encampment in Anisq’Oyo’ Park. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)
Bicycles, wood pallets, portable canopies, blankets and other items were spread across the park, along with a handful of people.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office did not issue any citations, sheriff’s spokeswoman Raquel Zick said Monday afternoon.
By 4:30 p.m. on Monday, a chain-link fence was installed along sections of the park, and a “no trespassing” sign was posted near a path through the park.
In an email, IVRPD said the goal of the closure is to connect encamped individuals at Anisq’Oyo’ Park with alternative shelter accommodations and other vital resources, while IVRPD works to address health and safety hazards in the park and complete deferred maintenance to improve the park for community members.
“Specifically, these health and safety concerns include increased calls for law enforcement response to violent crime, drug and human trafficking, domestic violence, and multiple near-death drug overdoses,” according to a statement from the district. “To the extent possible given these factors, IVRPD has deferred the enforcement of the area closure provisions in its COVID-19 encampment management policy until alternative safe sleeping sites could be provided to community members experiencing homelessness.”
The district said it continues to work with Good Samaritan Shelter and homeless residents to “provide pathways for elective downsizing of unwanted items in advance of the cleanup, and will remove or store any property left at the site at the time of cleanup in accordance with applicable policy and law.”
A ‘no trespassing’ sign hangs on a chain-link fence set up Monday in Isla Vista’s Anisq’Oyo’ Park. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)
The southern end of People’s Park — adjacent to the park — is made available as a sanctioned sleeping space with access to portable hand-washing stations and restrooms in a socially distanced manner consistent with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and state health orders, according to IVRPD.
Dumpsters are accessible to residents for elective downsizing of unneeded items, and “IVRPD remains committed to working with residents and its service provider partners to remove or store other property in accordance with applicable policy and law,” the district said.
When the pandemic hit, the organization Food Not Bombs started free mobile meal services and bringing packaged meals to people in the park.
With the closure of the park, the volunteers were concerned that those living there will not have anywhere else to go, and will be farther away from resources that Isla Vista has to offer.
“They moved to Isla Vista seeking refuge only to be met with conflict,” said Gina Sawaya, a Food Not Bombs volunteer and Isla Vista resident.
Standing along the 950 block of Embarcadero del Norte on Monday morning, Sawaya noted the new tents in People’s Park.
“I have been here all weekend, and all of these tents are pretty new,” Sawaya said. “There has been a lot of progress made in terms of moving into People’s Park from Anisq’Oyo’.”
She also spoke of the density she saw at People’s Park.
Large tents are set up on the stage at the amphitheater at Isla Vista’s Anisq’Oyo’ Park. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)
“This is a lot denser compared to how close people are in Anisq’Oyo’,” Sawaya said. “I’m concerned seeing it with the tents here now that there’s no privacy and there’s no separation.”
Sawaya arrived at Anisq’Oyo’ at about 7:45 a.m. on Monday, and assisted a couple with moving some of their belongings into a storage unit on Los Carneros Road in Goleta.
She had planned to help another houseless resident take belongings to their property located about 10 miles north of Isla Vista.
“These are my friends,” Sawaya said. “This is my community. I don’t want to see them go through something stressful without support,” later adding, “I wanted to make sure they had advocates and people who can speak on their behalf if it comes to that.”
Sawaya greeted a man walking past People’s Park shortly before 9 a.m.
“Hey Chris,” she said.
He responded, “Good morning.”
Cleanup efforts will target impacted areas within Anisq’Oyo’ Park to recover, repair and improve park resources, according to the IVRPD.
The district will be contracting out for assistance in cleaning up hazardous materials that “pose significant public or environmental health-and-safety risks in Anisq’Oyo’ Park, and its staff lack the training or resources to safely manage.”
The district said it hopes non-impacted sections of the park can remain open for public day-use during the cleanup efforts to the extent that is safely possible while deferred maintenance work is undertaken.
The district said its staff will begin to implement several deferred maintenance projects, such as repair of the park’s irrigation systems, trimming trees to improve public safety sight lines, and trenching for installation of new electrical conduits to power lighting improvements.
Cost estimates could be provided as of Monday because of “unknown complications inherent in the cleanup and subsequent planned maintenance work,” the district said.
Funds for the cleanup and subsequent maintenance will be expended directly by IVRPD, and the district is exploring options for cost-sharing with its partners as well as potential reimbursement through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s public assistance program.
IVRPD said it is working with its service provider and outreach partner, Good Samaritan, to develop a relocation assistance plan for those individuals who are unable to be housed in the shelter.
“Now that the temporary emergency shelter is open, there is a better, safer, and more resourced option available that has oversight from an agency that has years of experience in serving the homeless population,” the district statement continued.
In an attempt to mitigate the exponential rise of homeless persons in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara County constructed tiny pallet houses to make up a temporary homeless shelter in the heart of the neighborhood.
“We’re committed to trying to make sure that each person that comes to the shelter has a safe shelter or housing option when they leave,” said Kimberlee Albers, homeless assistance program manager for the county Housing and Community Development Division. “We want to find an opportunity for every individual.”
The shelter, which opened on Dec. 15, consists of 20 tiny pallet houses and support trailers with showers, restrooms, and hand-washing stations. On any given day, the shelter can house between 20 and 40 individuals, Albers said.
Each pallet house is an 8-by-8-foot structure that includes two beds, locking doors and windows, ventilation, and electricity accessibility.
Good Samaritan, the operator of the shelter, is working with county departments and other nonprofits to provide intensive case management, housing navigation, substance-abuse intervention opportunities, and public health and behavioral services to shelter residents to link them to permanent or safe housing resources.
The shelter will remain in operation until June 2021, and will have residents cycle through for six months, Albers said. The shelter is limited to individuals who have already had a connection to Isla Vista and must be referred by a provider, she added.
The project includes a ramp-down in the final 60 days of the operation to incrementally reduce the number of participants to “ensure that all the energy goes towards making sure that those that are currently sheltered will remain housed once the shelter closes,” Albers said.
The temporary shelter is funded through various CARES Acts monies that have allowed the county to employ homeless protection strategies that would have been more difficult without that additional resource, Albers said.
“I think with COVID, we’re seeing extra resources right now that enable us to employ some strategies that we couldn’t fund before,” she said.
With the increase of homeless encampments in Isla Vista, and the health-and-safety risks that the encampments pose, the temporary shelter could be a step in the right direction for managing the issue.
“One thing that has happened as the encampments have grown especially large is that there are major safety concerns,” said Spencer Brandt, president of the Isla Vista Community Services District.
There have been drug overdoses and fires reported in the past few weeks, Brandt said, making it “an unsafe situation for a lot of people living in the encampments.”
Brandt hopes that providing shelter and services to homeless individuals in the area could serve as a model that can be deployed in other areas of the region.
“Usually when it comes to addressing homelessness, I think that the main way that governments have gone about it for a long time is to move people out of sight, out of mind, without finding them housing,” he said. “The pandemic has shown people that we need to give them housing first. I think this is the right approach to be taken.”
The federally mandated point-in-time count conducted in January found at least 69 people experiencing homelessness in Isla Vista, compared to the 33 it counted in 2019.