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Plight of the Poor Hits Close to Home in Santa Barbara

This week, city committees will take up RV parking on streets, panhandling and other homelessness issues.

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James Trapani, center, has been living with his family — Dakota, wife Michelle, James, Michael and Jordan — in an RV on Quarantina Street in Santa Barbara ever since they were evicted from their home in Ventura nearly six weeks ago. The city’s Public Works Department wants to post “No RV Parking” signs in neighborhoods it considers problematic. The signs would prohibit RV parking at all times. Trapani says, “If we can’t park our RV, I can’t afford to stay in campgrounds. We’ll be screwed.” (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

With the economy headed south, homeless issues are back on the front burner in the city of Santa Barbara.

On Tuesday afternoon, responding to what some officials say is a growing problem, Santa Barbara’s ordinance committee will consider proposing a new law making it more difficult to park RVs on city streets.

On Thursday, the city’s five-month-old Subcommittee of Homelessness and Community Relations will address issues such as panhandling. City leaders are bandying about several ideas, such as a public-awareness campaign to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers, many of whom use the cash for purchasing booze and drugs. There has been some talk of allowing residents and tourists to purchase vouchers at stores for food and other staples that could be given to panhandlers in lieu of money. But area merchants are skeptical of the idea, saying the program was tried years before and failed.

Matters on homelessness have become increasing concerns for local leaders, as harsher economic conditions seem to be pushing more and more people into the streets.

City officials say the RVs are a problem in part because they are unsanitary. A recently released city report says some RV occupants have a tendency to illegally dump trash, gather in large groups and occasionally even engage in criminal activities such as drug dealing, assaults and prostitution.

“These concentrations of semi-permanent RVs … create an environment of fear and anxiety for the public and a public nuisance in general,” according to the report.

Specifically, the city’s Public Works Department is proposing that it be allowed to post “No RV Parking” signs in neighborhoods it considers problematic. The signs would prohibit RV parking at all times.

A current ordinance does prohibit some RV parking, but only south of Highway 101, and only overnight.

If approved by the ordinance committee Tuesday, the proposed law still would need to be passed by the City Council before becoming an official ordinance. The City Council could take the matter up as soon as next Tuesday, Nov. 18.

The proposal has given at least one local RV-dwelling family in town a good scare.

James Trapani has been living with his family of six in an RV on Quarantina Street ever since they were evicted from their home in Ventura nearly six weeks ago.

Trapani, 38, said he and his family are guilty of nothing other than having a string of bad luck. “I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs,” he said. “No criminal record, nothing. Not all of us are criminals.”

Trapani said his family was evicted from the two-bedroom home they were renting when the owner of their rental unit lost her other house. “If we can’t park our RV, I can’t afford to stay in campgrounds,” he said. “We’ll be screwed.”

He said the family has been living off Social Security ever since he severely injured his shoulder pulling 200 pounds of concrete out of the ground while working at a forklift company. Tapani added that he is scheduled to undergo surgery Wednesday for the resulting degenerative arthritis.

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Local government and nonprofit officials say panhandling is a $600,000 industry in Santa Barbara. On Thursday, the Subcommittee of Homelessness and Community Relations is expected to discuss the idea of producing vouchers for people to purchase for panhandlers. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
Trapani isn’t the only person in the family with health problems. His stepdaughter is deaf. His 15-year-old son has two holes in his heart and lost a lung to pneumonia at age 4. His scars from the surgery are visible. In addition, Trapani said, his 10-year-old son is emotionally disturbed and suicidal. Trapani said the young boy was traumatized when he witnessed his biological mother unsuccessfully try to kill herself by slitting her wrists. (The woman no longer lives with the family.)

Still, Trapani said, things are going OK in Santa Barbara, which, he added, offers many more services to the downtrodden than Ventura.

The Santa Barbara County Education Office, he said, has found schools for his children to attend.

“They haven’t missed a day yet, and they won’t,” he said.

The Casa Esperanza homeless shelter has fed the family.

Trapani said he is aware of the city’s Safe Parking program, which allows people living in their vehicles to park for the night in certain designated lots. But, he said, it’s difficult for the family to abide by the schedule: The vehicles need to be gone by 6:30 a.m., and can’t be parked before 7 p.m. Parking on the street, he said, has turned out to be the best option.

“I’ve never had any problem with the cops or anything,” he said. “I keep this area clean.”

City Councilman Das Williams, one of three council members on the ordinance committee, said it is addressing the issue prematurely. Williams said he would like to see the matter discussed by the city’s homeless subcommittee before any policies are crafted by the ordinance committee.

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John, a 58-year-old State Street panhandler who said he spent 25 years as a hog farmer in Idaho until he lost his health seven years ago, said he would prefer cash to vouchers. “It’s a good concept, but I’d rather have the cash, ‘cause I drink, too,” he said. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
“It’s kind of out of the blue to send this straight to the ordinance committee,” he said.

In terms of the RV issue itself, Williams said he believes that the city doesn’t do a good enough job distinguishing the lawbreakers from the law-abiders.

“There are people out there who live in their vehicles who are very respectful,” he said, “and then some people who are really irresponsible.”

Williams added it would be somewhat hypocritical of him to approve of the ordinance as proposed, since he himself once had to live in his car during a rough time at age 17.

City Councilman Dale Francisco, who also sits on the ordinance committee, said he is in favor of the proposal.

“We get a lot of complaints about this,” he said, adding that he’s been told that Santa Barbara is home to about 450 RV dwellings. “It’s a nightmare situation for people who live near those areas. … It’s definitely out of control when you’ve got 15 or 20 RVs all parked essentially together.”

Meanwhile, on the topic of panhandling, officials from the city government and nonprofit agencies say the practice is a $600,000 industry in Santa Barbara, meaning that all local panhandlers combined pocket about that much money in a typical year.

“When a town gives $600,000 to people who ask for it, you’re going to have people ask for it,” Mike Foley, executive director of the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter, said last week at a city planning commission meeting. “It’s against the law to tell people not to panhandle. But it’s not against the law to tell people it’s assisted suicide to give people money when you know those people are going to use that money to go buy drugs and alcohol.”

On Thursday, the Subcommittee of Homelessness and Community Relations is expected to discuss the idea of producing vouchers for people to purchase for panhandlers. But City Councilwoman Helene Schneider, who sits on the subcommittee, said such a program would need buy-in from local businesses.

Schneider said the subcommittee will discuss other matters besides the voucher program, which is sometimes referred to as “Compassion Not Cash.”

For instance, some merchants want to see a bigger police presence downtown. Others are less concerned about the older panhandlers, who tend to beg quietly, and more concerned about the in-your-face younger panhandlers.

“We don’t know if they are homeless or not,” Schneider said of the more youthful street people. “But they are more aggressive.”

As for “Compassion Not Cash,” Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Steve Cushman said he is skeptical. Cushman said the chamber tried to implement the same plan during the recession of the early 1990s, and it never caught on.

“The public didn’t accept it,” he said. “That’s the big thing: You gotta have people who go buy them, and give them out.”

Cushman said he remembers State Street being considerably worse for panhandling during that recession. But he added: “Now, we’ve got a pretty serious recession going on, so we’ll see what happens.”

On Monday afternoon, one soft-spoken State Street panhandler named John — a 58-year-old who said he spent 25 years as a hog farmer in Idaho until he lost his health seven years ago — said he would prefer cash to vouchers.

“It’s a good concept, but I’d rather have the cash, ‘cause I drink, too,” he said.

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