With the rise of homeless encampments in the Isla Vista community since the coronavirus pandemic erupted, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted to move along with planning for a temporary homeless shelter in the neighborhood.
The conditions of the encampments pose fire risks, concern for the environment and safety of the Isla Vista community and visitors, as well as concern for the health and safety of those experiencing homelessness.
According to County Fire’s Inspection of Homeless Encampments Notice of Determination/Violation from Oct. 26, there is “significant potential for the fire and life hazard conditions” in Isla Vista encampments that “adversely impact life, property and the environment.”
The Isla Vista temporary emergency shelter would help break up the encampments and prevent and mitigate COVID-19 impacts for those who remain unsheltered.
“These encampments have created an unsafe environment for people living in them and for the community at large,” said Dinah Lockhart, deputy director of the county’s Housing and Community Development Division.
The shelter would house 50 guests and provide 4,000 nights of shelter, according to Lockhart. Up to 20 pallet houses would be installed in the parking lot adjacent to the Isla Vista Community Center, at 976 Embarcadero del Mar, and would hold up to 40 beds.
The pallet houses are reusable 8-foot-by-8-foot dwellings that have electrical outlets, lighting and a heater in each unit. Each unit costs about $8,000, according to Lockhart.
In addition to the pallet houses, there also would be support trailers with showers, restrooms and hand-washing stations.
The project would require an emergency permit to be issued by the director of the county’s Planning and Development Department as well as a use agreement between the General Services Department and the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District for the portion of the parking lot that it owns.
Good Samaritan Shelters, the proposed operator of the project, would work with county departments and other nonprofit providers to provide intensive case management, housing navigation, substance abuse intervention opportunities, and public health and behavioral services to shelter residents with the objective of linking those individuals to permanent or safe housing resources.
The timeline for the shelter is limited. It is projected to open by mid-December and remain in operation through mid-June 2021. The project would include a ramp-down in the final 60 days of the operation to incrementally reduce the number of participants through attrition, according to Lockhart. It would ensure participants are assisted with services and safe exit housing options.
The estimated cost of the entire project is $900,000, which would be covered by various CARES Act funds, Lockhart said.
A task force was formed to address the concerns and conditions of Isla Vista encampments, and it has already taken a series of actions to improve the situation. Some of those measures include the installation of hygiene equipment, distribution of hygiene items, removal of excess belongings, waste and biohazards, and placing storage bins to mitigate the footprint of the camps.
However, the exponential growth of the encampments continues to be a major cause of concern.
“These efforts have unfortunately not resulted in a decrease in encampments or a number of persons living in encampments,” Lockhart said. “In fact, we’re still seeing that number rise today.”
On June 30, outreach workers counted 44 people experiencing homelessness throughout Isla Vista, largely in encampments in parks. However, the current estimate of people living in encampments in the parks is as high as 80, according to a board letter filed by the Community Services Department.
“A temporary emergency shelter is a viable option that would attempt to prevent and protect the community from the spread of COVID-19 and address other community impacts,” Lockhart said.
The Board of Supervisors was in support of the temporary shelter and saw it as a pilot project that, if successful, could serve as a model for similar situations in other parts of the county.
“It’s a pilot project that we can learn a lot from,” Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann said. “It’s desperately needed.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.