Driven Out

Monday, July 31, 2017
Kate Wheeling
Pacific Standard

Most days, Linda Trevino and her husband Angel wake up around 7 a.m. She'll brew a fresh pot of coffee while he scans the local alt-weekly. After taking their two dogs out for a quick walk, Linda and Angel will sit at their modest Formica kitchen table, quietly sipping from their mugs and watching morning television.

After about an hour, they will shuffle from their cramped kitchen into their home's even more cramped cab. Sitting behind the wheel with the experience of an old sailor, Linda will navigate their home to a quiet spot on a nondescript side street. It took them years of traversing the maze of roads that crisscross Santa Barbara, California, the city of 90,000 that lies squarely on California's pristine coastline, to find this refuge, one of the few streets left without a "No RV Parking" sign. They still move every two or three days—up the road, across the street—trying to outrun the knock on the door by the police that means they've overstayed their welcome on the city's public streets.

Linda and Angel are just two of an estimated 200 or more people living in RVs throughout Santa Barbara County. But they are not #VanLifers, at least not as far as the word has come to encapsulate a bohemian-as-wardrobe lifestyle. They are not simply driving around Santa Barbara for the sun and surf. For most of them, Linda and Angel included, living in a vehicle is not a lifestyle choice, but a last resort—a desperate effort to stay off the streets in an area where affordable housing is scarce, the cost of living is high, and shelters are already stretched to their limits.

Linda met her husband at one such shelter, Casa Esperanza, in 2009. Linda and Angel were both on disability at that point from work-related accidents. But they couldn't make rent on disability checks alone, so after five years bouncing in and out of shelters, they pooled the money they'd saved from social security and bought an RV.

Though they still meet the federal government's definition for homelessness, for Linda, the RV feels like home: Angel built a small bookshelf into one wall, and the kitchen table folds away into a couch that Linda keeps covered with oversized pillows. One of the dogs, Chico, has claimed the cab passenger seat as his bed; the other, Diddy, prefers the floor by the couch.

But decades of cat-and-mouse games with city officials have made it nearly impossible for RV dwellers to find a place to park their homes. For years, businesses or residents complained to the city about the "dangerous" or "dirty" RVers squatting in front of their million-dollar real estate, and the city would respond with localized parking bans, pushing RVers into new and different neighborhoods. Then, in the fall of 2016, a fed-up city council took more comprehensive action, voting unanimously to pass an ordinance banning on-street parking citywide for all oversized vehicles more than 25 feet long, 80 inches wide, or 82 inches tall. Unless, of course, that oversized vehicle is a government or utility vehicle, a contractor's pick-up, a commercial delivery truck, or a resident's or tourist's RV with the proper temporary permit. In other words, the new ordinance, which will go into effect in September, may not explicitly or exclusively describe RVs like Linda's, but no one is under any illusions about who the intended target is.

Though her home may be mobile, she can't bring herself to leave her hometown. Some of her unwillingness can be chalked up to simple mawkishness, sure, but part is also cultural: Linda is Chumash—the local Native-American people who have lived along the California coast for millennia; her ancestors were the Cotas, one of the first families to settle Santa Barbara. "I don't feel I should have to leave my home, my ancestral home, just because people want to complain about oversized vehicles," she says, her voice rising as her square-framed glasses slip down the bridge of her nose. Her dark, bushy hair is pulled back into a ponytail, revealing ribbons of gray. She's even unfazed by the random acts of malice that this legislative pickle has triggered: One evening in May, Linda returned to her RV to find the tires slashed and window screens sliced open. Another RV parked up the block met a similar fate that same day.

As a rule, people want to move to Santa Barbara, not away from it. It's not hard to understand why.

Santa Barbara sits nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Spanish villas and mansions fit for Beverly Hills dot the city, their exteriors obscured by towering walls of thick hedges. Everything seems to smell like patchouli. But Santa Barbara's growing population is straining the city's limited real estate (more than half of the city's 42 square miles are under water). According to Forbes, Santa Barbara County ranks among the 20 least affordable counties in the United States. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in 2016 was $1,728—up 20 percent from the year before—and the vacancy rate is less than 0.5 percent.

"It's really easy to become homeless here," says city councilwoman Cathy Murillo. Once someone does lose their housing in Santa Barbara, it can prove incredibly difficult to get a new place, even with a steady income. A 2017 survey of the county's homeless population revealed that, even as the city of Santa Barbara's total homeless population is continues to fall, more and more people are calling their vehicles home. More than a third of the city of Santa Barbara's homeless population lives in vehicles, as do more than half of the nearby city of Goleta's. And most people living in cars and RVs in Santa Barbara in fact do have some form of income, whether from working in nursing, retail, or some more creative source.

Paula Pardee, who shares a cramped RV with one dog, two birds, and the occasional friend, gets by collecting recyclables. Over the years Pardee has cultivated a working knowledge of the best collection spots in the city, which she's translated into hundreds of pounds of recyclables a day. When traded in at the recycling center, these hauls provide Pardee enough money to live—even if it comes at the expense of her health.

"It's been taking a toll on my back, though," she says. She put in an application at a local 99 Cents store, but she's still waiting to hear back.

Even residents with more lucrative employment can find themselves priced out of the city's housing market. "Most of the RV people are people just like you and me," says Deborah Barnes, founder of the non-profit Worth Street Reach, which works with RV dwellers throughout the county. "People that have children, people that work, and there's just nowhere for them to live." Barnes' clients include a fine-dining chef, a prominent businessman, a city official, and several Cottage Hospital employees who all live in RVs. (None of Barnes' clients agreed to speak with Pacific Standard for this story.)

Many of Santa Barbara's RVers find themselves faced with a catch-22: leaving town would mean quitting their jobs, but once enforcement begins, sticking around would require giving up their homes. The city's parking ban could actually exacerbate homelessness in Santa Barbara, Barnes says, by forcing RV dwellers to give up living in their vehicles for a spot on the street or in a shelter—the latter of which are usually full in Santa Barbara.

And even when shelters do have available beds, they may have other restrictions that make it impossible for some people to take advantage of them. Pets, for example, are rarely welcome. When Pardee lost her home in nearby Lompoc, California, she chose her dog over a bed at a shelter. "They took my house, my kids, my car," she says. "They weren't going to take my dog. He was the only thing that I had." She spent 17 years living on Santa Barbara's streets before a friend gifted her an old RV as a birthday present last year.

The battle between RVers and the city of Santa Barbara began back in 1964, when the city council passed an ordinance banning anyone from living or sleeping in RVs on public streets, lots, parks, and beaches. But that rule has never been easy to enforce.

"There's all sorts of loopholes," says Nancy McCradie, a 71-year-old homeless advocate who, after leaving her alcoholic and abusive ex-husband, lived for nearly 40 years in RVs in Santa Barbara. "I spent a lot of time figuring out how to get around the laws. If I got caught, and the cops wanted to wake me up in the middle of the night, I wouldn't move. I wouldn't answer the door, because if you don't answer the door, you don't get a ticket."

This latest ban attempts to crackdown on those loopholes, but it follows a string of similar attempts by the city. In 2002 the city council banned overnight RV parking and put up 33 signs around the city limits warning drivers about the latest parking limitations. In response, McCradie and a few allies filed suit against the city, claiming the ordinance was meant only to legislate RV dwellers out of town. The courts eventually sided against the city, ruling that, because the signs were posted only at the city entrances, drivers weren't properly notified of the ban.

After much back and forth, the city finally struck a deal with the plaintiffs in 2007, passing a law permitting off-street camping in certain church lots, manufacturing zones, and city lots. As part of the deal, the city also began funding the Safe Parking program, an initiative that was created in 2002 to secure parking for RVers before they can transition to permanent housing. Safe Parking is administered through New Beginnings, a local non-profit that provides homeless services.

But the city's settlement also included RV parking bans in certain areas of town including the waterfront and in some industrial zones. Those bans drove RVers into residential neighborhoods, triggering what the city attorney Ariel Calonne, calls "a whack-a-mole problem." The city council fitfully enacted parking bans on city streets in response to complaints from community members about illegal dumping, drugs, or more often than not, an aesthetically unappealing vehicle parked in front of their property.

But RVers think the city and its residents are unfairly condemning all RV dwellers on the account of a few bad apples, when, in fact, most go out of their way not to incite local residents. "Everyone who lives in an RV knows the Golden Rule: You have to move at least every three days," Linda says. "My husband and I always make it a point to try not to park in residential areas."

In 2008, the city took another shot at a more comprehensive RV ban, forbidding the vehicles from parking near certain "sensitive" areas that included schools, hospitals, churches, and the post office. But that ordinance ran afoul of the Americans With Disabilities Act. "What that ordinance essentially did was make it impossible for somebody in an RV to access any of the basic services they might need if they were disabled," Calonne says.

Santa Barbara is no outlier in its treatment of the homeless. Across the country, the homeless are criminalized for acts that the rest of us carry out in private and thus take for granted—eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom, to name a few. At its worst, this broad dehumanization of the homeless allowed a Republican congressman from Alaska to suggest in 2015 that releasing endangered wolves into his peers' districts might solve the "homeless problem."

Hyperbole, perhaps, but many municipalities have criminalized homelessness itself; the number of cities to impose laws against vehicle-dwelling has shot up by 143 percent in the last 10 years. But many of those cities have faced legal roadblocks.

In Santa Cruz County, where at least 21 percent of the nearly 2,000 homeless individuals were living in their cars as recently as 2015, the California Coastal Commission shot down the city's RV parking ban due to concerns that it unfairly targeted the homeless. In 2014, a federal court of appeals struck down a Los Angeles law banning vehicle dwelling, saying it was arbitrarily enforced by police officers and used to discriminate against the poor and homeless. (It also wasn't very effective: Often, officers were simply kicking individuals out of their cars and onto the streets.)

By 2015, the Santa Barbara City Council's frustrations with the RV kerfuffle had reached a breaking point. Complaints would come in, signs would go up, and the RVers would shift to new, unmarked streets in town. The council was searching for a better way to restrict RV parking, but the city attorney was concerned about the lawsuits and legal roadblocks other cities had faced. "Over the last three years, the federal courts have become very aggressive against enforcement of street parking laws focused on people who live in vehicles," Calonne says. "I had to tell the [city council members] that by focusing on RVs in the manner in which they were doing it, the federal district courts and the courts of appeal would see right through what they were doing as an effort to eradicate homeless people from Santa Barbara."

Instead, Calonne offered the council members an option that would allow them to regulate RVs, without all the legal baggage of trying to regulate the people living inside them. When the city passed the latest ordinance (and simultaneously repealed the 1964 ban) they dropped all explicit references to RVs in favor of "oversized vehicles." The new ordinance is meant to resolve traffic safety problems oversized vehicles pose—it just so happens it also serves to eradicate homeless RV dwellers.

Those safety concerns stem from "the nature of our street network," according to Derrick Bailey, a transportation engineer with the Public Works Department. Chiefly, oversized vehicles parked on the city's old, narrow streets can block drivers' and cyclists' line of sight when pulling out of driveways or side streets. But the city doesn't have information on how many, if any, accidents may have actually been caused by oversized vehicle parking, Bailey says. The ordinance is based on "engineering judgment," he says, rather than data.

Homeless advocates like Deborah Barnes, of Worth Street Reach, are quick to point out that there will still be oversized vehicles on city streets. Government or emergency services vehicles, commercial vehicles dropping off or picking up goods, and buses will all be subject to exemptions, and a permit system is being set up for visitors and contractors.

"What's going to be interesting for us to see as a community is the profiling that's going to start taking place," Barnes says. "They're going to not go give a ticket to an escalade, a Hummer, or a silver Sprinter; they're going to give it to anybody else that looks like they're living in their car."

Indeed, part of the reason it's taken so long to implement the new ordinance is that a small but vocal group of Santa Barbarans have seen their recreational or work vehicles caught in the net of the oversized vehicle parking ban. "I don't give an eff about the homeless," Lori Rafferty says on a Friday afternoon in mid-March. Standing in a semi-circle of frustrated Santa Barbara residents beneath the white stucco archways that mark the entrance to City Hall, Rafferty sports trendy athleisurewear and a look of weary resentment. A group of upper-middle-class Santa Barbarans had just wrapped up a mid-day closed meeting with the city attorney in which they stated their case for modifications to the ban that would exempt their own vehicles. "I'm losing compassion, because it's constantly impacting me as a responsible citizen," she says.

Calonne was largely unsympathetic. "The only discretion that the police have with this ordinance is what brand of tape measure to use," he says.

In the months since the ordinance passed, the city has spent around $75,000 putting up 300-plus signs all over the city. When police officers come across vehicles that violate the new ordinance, they have been placing notices on their windshields, warning the owners that the ban will soon take effect. Exactly when police will begin enforcing the ban remains to be seen—the city still needs to build out a permitting system—but in the meantime RV dwellers are becoming increasingly worried that one day they'll wake up with nowhere to go. "Safe Parking is no longer a safe place," Barnes says. "The minute they roll off that lot, they're now illegal."

Kristine Schwarz, the executive director of New Beginnings, the non-profit that runs Safe Parking, pleaded with the city council members after they passed the new law. "If we're going to create an ordinance that displaces a specific subset of our population, then we need to account for those displaced individuals and families," she said. "I'm simply asking for your specific directions as to where to tell our clients who are impacted that they should park during the day."

The city council members hoped that Schwarz and her staff might have a solution: expanding the Safe Parking program to include daytime spots.

But Schwarz never intended to provide around-the-clock parking to New Beginnings' clients. For one thing, it's been difficult enough to get the nighttime program funded. Safe Parking was one of the least prioritized of any of Santa Barbara's many homeless programs, according to Schwarz, despite the growing number of vehicular homeless in the county.

Safe Parking received only about 5 percent of the $1.2 million in homeless funding that the city shelled out to various organizations in the fiscal year 2016. Today, New Beginnings reserves 129 spots in 23 parking lots throughout Santa Barbara and Goleta where people living in cars can park from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., 365 days a year. A two-man team monitors the lots at night; every location has at least one porta-potty; some lots have locked gates, and one even offers laundry and Wi-Fi. Their locations are all confidential. It costs New Beginnings roughly $2,500 to insure each parking space, and the non-profit has to pay the two lot monitors to check in on the 23 sites twice a night, and the case managers who work with participants to transition back into stable work and housing.

Just two case managers are responsible for finding all of the program participants housing, jobs, public benefits like food stamps, and medical and dental care. At least 25 percent of the participants in the Safe Parking program are officially employed; 45 percent receive Supplementary Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance income, or Social Security retirement income; 81 percent are on Medicaid, Medicare, or both; and 33 percent receive food stamps. Schwarz and her small team are also responsible for doing street outreach work to bring those who are yet part of the program into its safety net. Spots in the program open up as New Beginnings employees help vehicle dwellers transition into more stationary housing; the vast majority of program participants move into permanent housing in less than two years, almost everyone makes it out before three years, but some have spent as many as eight years on the lots. It took 15 years for the program to cultivate its 129 nighttime spots, and the waiting list for a spot in the program hovers lately between 65 and 70 people. Enforcement is slated to begin September 5th, which means that, now, Schwarz and her team have mere months to find the spaces and the funds to expand Safe Parking into a daytime program.

Schwarz and her colleagues began scanning Santa Barbara County grid by grid for possible daytime parking lots last year. They found 50 seemingly suitable lots, and started tracking down the lot owners and convincing them to participate in the program. But it's one thing to ask businesses and organizations to use their empty lots at night; available daytime spaces are a rarer commodity—not to mention more expensive to insure thanks to higher pedestrian and vehicle traffic. The city council agreed to give New Beginnings another $60,000 for the program, and directed the city staff to help Schwarz track down lot owners and ask them to participate.

"It's tough, because you have to leave a voicemail saying, 'You don't know me but we want to park homeless people in your parking lot,'" she says. So far, New Beginnings has secured 10 daytime spots, and the mayor's office is working directly with the city's faith-based organizations to help nail down another eight before September. Schwarz hoped the state would offer up several underutilized lots on state property too.

On a cold January night, she took two representatives from the offices of California Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblymember Monique Limón on a tour of the nighttime lots, scattered with the quiet cars, vans, and RVs of program participants. None of the residents emerged to greet the group of strangers huddled outside their homes, but yellow lights glowed behind thin curtains in a few RVs, revealing silhouettes of people cooking, reading, talking—living their lives, in whatever calm they could find. "Honestly if we could get the state properties downtown, we could probably solve the daytime issue for the program participants," Schwarz told the reps. "But the clock is ticking and we don't have much time."

In the meantime, Schwarz and her colleagues are beginning to worry about how they're going to divvy up the daytime spots they do have. Should they go to those who have been in the program the longest? The most vulnerable? Or those with children? Schwarz is leaning toward setting up a lottery system. "It's the only equitable way to do it at this point," she says.

Linda Trevino, for her part, resents that homeowners and city councillors feel entitled to make her leave. "They've been welcomed for so long by our people," she says. "But they're taking it for granted that they think they can push our people out. I've already spoken to other native people, and if push comes to shove, they will help me fight."

She heard from other RVers that her usual daytime parking spot will remain safe even after the ban goes into effect in a few months. But to Linda, that just means her quiet street could suddenly become an RV depot. Already new, unruly neighbors have appeared. A family with two kids and three dogs in a truck and camper set-up recently settled down on their block. "They're treating it like a residence," she says. "They're not cleaning up after their dogs, they’re leaving garbage out there." And worst of all, they haven't moved an inch in over a month. Linda has warned the newcomers about the Golden Rule—move every three days—but she's leery of making further contact. She doesn't want to be associated with the troublemakers. "They're making a mess out there," she says. "I know it's going to make it bad for everybody else because that's how it starts. It's like a chain reaction."

FAIR USE NOTICE. Tenants Together is not the author of this article and the posting of this document does not imply any endorsement of the content by Tenants Together. This document may contain copyrighted material the use of which may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Tenants Together is making this article available on our website in an effort to advance the understanding of tenant rights issues in California. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

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