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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 12:03 am | Fair 51º


Santa Barbara’s Reversal Puts Its RV Program on a Roll

The city changed its mind on banning overnight parking, and now even the national media have mobilized to tell the story.

Santa Barbara’s RV program serves 58 RVs, and in the past year has put 20 families into permanent housing. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

Several years after getting dinged in the press for banning the overnight parking of recreational vehicles, the city of Santa Barbara is now a crucial part of an RV program for the homeless that suddenly has become a media darling.

The program allows homeless people to park their RVs in several city lots, as well as in the lots of some churches and nonprofit organizations.

In the past few months, it has been featured in the Los Angeles Times and on CNN, ABC and CBS’ Early Show. Soon to be added to the list are 20/20, National Public Radio and People Magazine, which is devoting four pages to the story.

The national media largely have glommed on to the story of Barbara Harvey, a member of the middle class who found herself living in her car after recently losing her job. To media outlets such as CNN and CBS, Harvey is the poster child for what could happen to many middle-class Americans who fall on hard times brought on by the nation’s gloomy economic climate.

The RV program receives much of its funding from the city of Santa Barbara, but is implemented by a nonprofit organization called New Beginnings.

Speaking to the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday, New Beginnings Executive Director Gary Linker couldn’t help but play up the coverage. “We received over 300 e-mails the first two days after the CNN piece,” he said. “I will say that it’s been a lot of public publicity to the city in a very positive way.”

Even so, he said he hasn’t noticed an increase in the number of middle-class homeless participants, as the CNN and CBS stories have strongly implied. “I don’t think the foreclosure issue has affected us too much here in Santa Barbara,” he said.

Meanwhile, the program has attracted some – but markedly less – coverage locally than nationally, a fact that Linker admitted he found “strange.”

In any case, despite the glowing praise from the national media – CBS referred to Santa Barbara’s program as “innovative” – several City Council members expressed concern that the coverage could open the floodgates for homeless people from around the state and beyond. 

“As much as I think all this publicity is absolutely fabulous, I would caution us not to make it look too attractive,” Councilwoman Iya Falcone said.

Councilman Das Williams agreed. “We want to take care of our own homeless. We don’t want to necessarily take care of the rest of California’s homeless problem,” he said.

Nonetheless, although no vote was taken, no council members seemed opposed to the proposal to increase city funding for the program from $36,000 to $43,000 for the fiscal year beginning July 1. All in all, the program costs $105,000, much of which is raised through fundraisers.

The city money pays for the salary and benefits of a half-time employee who serves as a kind of “park ranger,” checking on the program’s lots throughout the city to make sure the RV dwellers are abiding by the rules. Those rules include no guests, no barbecues and no drinking alcohol. 

“It’s a place for them to sleep, not socialize,” Transportation Director Browning Allen said.

The city has supplied 14 parking spaces in three lots: at West Carrillo Street near Highway 101, and at the intersections of Cota and Santa Barbara streets and Garden Street and Cabrillo Boulevard.

Other spaces are in the parking lots of churches, nonprofit organizations and private businesses, but Linker is reluctant to disclose the locations because of concerns about confidentiality.

All told, the program serves 58 RVs, and in the past year has put 20 families into permanent housing.

Meanwhile, in 2004, the city suffered an embarrassment when a court ruling stopped it from issuing parking tickets to RV dwellers. The courts decided that the city lacked adequate signage warning of the overnight ban on RV parking, and also said that it unfairly targeted the homeless.

In response, the city loosened its restrictions – keeping the ban for only portions of the city – and increased the number of parking spots for RVs.

The controversial ordinance and resulting ruling generated stories in media outlets characterizing the ban as a class struggle pitting the homeless against a wealthy city wanting to protect its tourism industry.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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