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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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» on 11.11.08 @ 08:02 AM

This idea of food vouchers to give to panhandlers probably will not work.

In addition to getting acceptance from the stores who would have to participate and from all the citizens that might give them to panhandlers, there is another challenge.

That is, many of the people being approached and who give money to panhandlers are tourists. How could they participate in a local food voucher program?

If the vouchers aren’t universally used, the panhandlers will toss the vouchers and keep going for cash.

» on 11.11.08 @ 08:27 AM

Didn’t we try this before?

Why hasn’t any of the papers brought up the real story? Doesn’t anyone recall when Marty Blum went on her Nationwide Marketing campaign to promote Santa Barbara’s Safe Parking campaign for RV’s etc?

What moron would go on a national stage promoting this? Of course this is what happens. Let them all park on her property.

I also love how the “dwellers” don’t know what to do if they can’t park here.  Go park in the “frickin desert”. Why do you need to park your wreck in paradise? Go to Stockton will probably be given a house for free to live in.  There are a million other places to park that won’t have a negative impact on one of the last remaining vibrant economies in this State.  Do they want to drag our town down like they did with their own lives?  Those people in the picture don’t look unable to work…like everything else in this world..this is a lifestyle choice, and they happen to “want” to live in Santa Barbara…too bad…you have to earn the right to live in Paradise. 

Pack up and hit the road!

» on 11.11.08 @ 09:14 AM

This is a very thoughtful article. I almost didn’t read it - we all know there’s a problem - what is there to say about it? But in fact, there’s a lot to consider. I think most SBans feel the same tug in different directions - we’re compassionate for those in need in the growing economic crisis, yet we’re fearful of their growing numbers.

I like Mike Foley’s attitude.
I regularly volunteer at Transition House, and can attest to that population’s desire to resolve their situations.
I think if citizens could be assured that everyone who wants help has access to help, we would be able to unify behind some type of action. There will always be the hardcore drug/alcohol dependant ones for whom tough love is the only option. The others, the vast majority, need a hand up.

» on 11.11.08 @ 12:10 PM

How easy it is to scapegoat the down and out and to create fear by rumors and mean spirited allegations that need not be proved as they are so believable that folks know them to be true. 
Essentially the narrative is this, the good people in our community don’t mind helping the “deserving poor” but they have a hard time finding any.
We have a part time shelter thus it is illegal to be homeless in SB most of they year even if you are trying to get into such a place.
We need a little more tolerance and a lot less self-congratulatory puffing.
These initiatives are being driven by people with narrow self interests, not by the community or by real evidence of problems (which by the way are appropriately prosecuted, if and when they occur, as a separate matter from the homeless status of the alleged perpetrator).

» on 11.11.08 @ 02:24 PM

The Real Story - Wow, must be nice to live in a glass house.  Haven’t you ever heard the saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover?” You sir, are what is wrong with this country today. 

PS. I was born, raised and still reside in our beautiful town of Santa Barbara.  These people have as much right to be here as you or me.

» on 11.11.08 @ 07:12 PM

Has anyone walked down State Street on the 500 block and been hassled by young homeless bums. It’s hard to have compassion when I see this. I sometimes give money out to a homeless person. Yet when they approach me I tell them to get lost.

» on 11.11.08 @ 08:22 PM

Why don’t we just have the County steal another $30 mil from the state and—I don’t know—build a fancy parking garage down on that lot by the tracks we’ve been soliciting ideas for.  Or syphon off a fraction of the millions in overruns from the next Casa Esperanza type project and pass out Rolex alarm clocks to the RVers so they can wake up before the 6:30 am deadline on the existing parking lots.  Since these folks were desperate enough to come here we must be obligated to help them, right?

» on 11.12.08 @ 08:55 AM

Dear Wow,

I’m happy to hear how enthusiastic you are about out-of- towners parking their RV’s in Paradise.  Since you are so inclined, please call City Hall and let Marty know that your street and perhaps driveway are being volunteered for RV parking.

My guess is that you live in a protected enclave, don’t have businesses that are impacted where the RV’s are parking, and don’t have kids in schools where they sit looking abandoned.

You sir are perhaps the one that lives in a glass house.  Again, living in Santa Barbara is a privilege not a right.  Do it legally, or hit the road.

I just love the guy in the big Solstice Bus who “lives” on Carbrillo.  This guy has the best ocean view in Santa Barbara, and do you think he will give back one nickel for that privilege? Nope…the proof is in his license registration.  Even though he says in interviews he lives there, he still has Utah plates and registration.  And the guy is a self proclaimed computer consultant, living in that bus by choice.  Can’t even pay a legal registration fee to this beautiful state.

I wish we had more “givers” like this in town.  Perhaps Wow or Marty could send out another press release.

» on 11.12.08 @ 09:08 AM

Vouchers are a better idea then money if there are no strings attached. These vouchers would need to be to local grocery stores and not to agencies that require something in return from the person.
A local church and non-profit organization assemble non-perishable bag meals that can be given out on the spot to someone in need. No money or voucher is exchanged and the person immediately receives a healthy meal.

» on 11.12.08 @ 10:01 AM

Why aren’t these folks camping on the streets of Ventura where they were reported to be evicted?

Could it be that the generosity and naivete’ of our City council and the often misplaced empathy and sympathy of our citizens makes Santa Barbara a far more attractive place to live on the street?

We have “walk-in shelters” to enable these “street” folks to have a free meal, mdical attention, a shower and a bed when they are tired of panhandling and partying. I remember when they were planning the Cacique Street (Casa Esperanza) walk-in shelter and one homeless man stood up at the East Beach pavilion public hearing in opposition to it.  He told the City and the shelter promoters that it would just attract more outside street people here. He closed his remarks by telling everyone he knew this would happen because he had been homeless here in Santa Barbara for 15 years!

The politicians in their haste to step all over themselves and convince the public they are passionate for the poor downtrodden “homeless”, especially in these troubled economic times, are unable to distinguish between the truly needy homeless deserving of a temporary helping hand, and the sub-culture of street people who follow such a life style by choice.

As long as we keep electing and appointing people that cannot see this difference, the problem will never be solved by governmental actions, it will only get worse.

» on 11.12.08 @ 07:12 PM

I personally have another view point.  Although I am detested at the demeanor and way these down and outs live, I have actually grown to love their presence here in SB.  I work at a job where most of my money goes to rent with nothing much more to get ahead. I drive a 10 year old car, and even though I am older I lived the same lifestyle as the typical poor college student.  When I walk around town and see these poeple it makes me appreciate what i have.  It keeps me from getting depressed, by seeing that there are people worse off than I..  If the magic bus could come and ship all these homeless out of town for good, I would find myself on the bottom of the economic ladder.  I would walk around in envy of all the people that could actually afford to buy a house here and have everything,,  See people, its all relative!    When i was younger I really enjoyed having disgusting, rude men in the bar… it gave me a chance with the ladies..  if i had a bar full of rich successful male models to compete with, i would be all alone! 

Keep the total losers around, and in relation I have a great job, am smart, good looking and have my sh*t together!  My ten year old mercedes is not a eyesore, with all these Rvs around.

» on 11.12.08 @ 07:18 PM

OMG, I feel so bad for this family in the article. i did not know how bad off they were and want really hard to improve their situation.

Someone please share with this family that our public library has free internet access and I just searched Ventura Craigslist… i found hundreds of recent listings for 2 bedroom apartments!!!!

» on 11.13.08 @ 09:15 AM

After reading all of the comments to the two articles on the street people of Santa Barbara (and they have spread into the County in case you have’nt noticed) it was apparent that most writers have no idea how many free and subsidized services that are provided now to those truly in need of temporary assistance. 

One writer mentioned Transition House. At the public hearings prior to the construction of the Cacique Street Casa Esperanza “walk-in” way station, the directors of two shelters, the Salvation Army shelter and the Rescue Mission both told the City Council they had many beds available and there was no added need especially for the “walk-in” style shelter which they percieved as only enabling places to continue inappropriate life styles.

The Council, in it’s never ending ignorance of the real world and it’s attempt to be true to the liberal/progressive democratic dogma that is their sworn agenda, did not understand that. They could not grasp the fact that, for the most part, the “homeless” that utilize walk-in shelters are street people not those looking for a temporary assist to get back on their feet. These other shelters have rules which if violated, result in expulsion. There are “lights out” hours, no drinking or drugs, admission screening, behavior restrictions, etc.

As long as the people of Santa barbara keep electing the kind of utopian far left nitwits they have, that is, politicians who cannot understand reality, then the welcome mat for every freeloading street dweller will continue to be out.

The ordinance that should be up for adoption is one that prohibits camping on the public and private property without permission and making it illegal to live in campers except in designated areas and only for short periods of time. As far as the unsightliness of signs, this ordinance would provide that the “signs” to be posted would only be posted on those streets or lots DESIGNATING PERMISSABLE PLACES. The existance of such restrictions need only be posted on roads leading into the City limits.

In accordance with the prevailing sentiments evidenced in these postings, the first signs designating permissable places to park should be in front of the houses of each member of the City Counsel and the mayor.

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