In light of a new effort to address homeless encampments due to the fire risk they pose, citywide and countywide discussions have begun on how to collaborate to keep the community safe.
The Santa Barbara County fire chief assembled a task force — composed of representatives from all of the fire departments in the county — to develop recommendations on how to best reduce the risk of fires starting in homeless encampments.
The County Board of Supervisors will hear these recommendations in the next month, according to 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart.
“Fire season is now year round,” the supervisor told the News-Press. “As the brush dries out from the summer heat, wildfire ignition from human causes is even more dangerous … Implementing these recommendations (from the task force) will be our highest fire safety priority.”
Mr. Hart chairs the Elected Officials Regional Collaborative on Homelessness.
He said the collaborative has been meeting to develop a joint agency approach to addressing homeless encampments throughout the county. He added that there is a consensus developing among elected officials, in that each city and district in the county has a shared responsibility to provide locations to house residents experiencing homelessness.
“I believe the best way we can solve this very complex issue is by working together,” Mr. Hart said. “The County of Santa Barbara is a willing partner with any jurisdiction that wants to implement creative solutions to homelessness in their community.”
The county’s Project Roomkey site has been able to take dozens of individuals off the streets and place them in temporary housing over the pandemic. The supervisor provided another solution as well — the Housing Authority.
He said more than 225 new Section 8 housing vouchers were allocated to the Housing Authority for the City of Santa Barbara and the county from the federal government. The vouchers can be used to pay rent for people experiencing homelessness who want to come indoors.
Mr. Hart said any landlords who have vacant apartments and are interested in working with the Housing Authorities should call the city division at 805-965-1071 or the county division at 805-736-3423.
Furthermore, the county is “committed to using some of the American Rescue Plan Act funds for acquiring and improving housing sites for individuals experiencing homelessness,” he said. The supervisor did not indicate how much money will be committed to the issue.
The final solution Mr. Hart presented was the work of U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, who recently introduced federal legislation to provide grants to support Safe Parking programs.
“The Safe Parking program began 20 years ago in Santa Barbara and has become a very successful program locally that has been replicated in many communities across the country,” Mr. Hart said.
Safe Parking programs allow for individuals who sleep in their cars a safe place to park and utilize resources such as bathroom facilities and case management. The Safe Parking Shelter and Rapid Rehousing Program, offered through New Beginnings, served 600 people last year.
“Solutions to homelessness require the combined efforts of national, state and local governments in partnership with community organizations, faith communities and local businesses,” Mr. Hart said. “Working together, we can get our neighbors safely indoors and provide a path to recovery and hope.”
Next door, the city of Goleta is planning ongoing outreach to people who are illegally camping by the Sheriff’s Office and coordinating with CalTrans on efforts to clean up trash, debris and personal belongings.
However, Jaime Valdez, the interim neighborhood services and public safety director for the city, said homeless encampments inside Goleta city limits “do not occur with much frequency.” Those that do pop up tend to be out of Goleta’s jurisdiction, such as in the CalTrans or Union Pacific rights of way.
“The city is in the process of developing regulations aimed at city-owned open spaces and parks throughout the city to improve public safety and reduce the fire risk on those lands,” Mr. Valdez said. “It is being developed to do so in a humane fashion while also protecting public health and safety. Other approaches to help prevent fire risk include pursuing dry vegetation cleanup to reduce potential fuel for fires.”
However, he said COVID-19 poses most of the obstacles in addressing the issue, with restrictions decreasing shelter capacity countywide by 75% and CalTrans implementing a statewide policy prohibiting it from clearing encampments.
Mr. Valdez said he hopes that policy will change as the state reaches new levels of openness.
In addition, the public safety director said Goleta is constrained by the Martin v. Boise case on moving people who are sitting, sleeping or lying on public property if the city does not have adequate shelter alternatives.
“The issue of homelessness is regional and ultimately not limited to one city or jurisdiction,” he said. “As such, it is necessary for all regional partners to work together to address the issue of homelessness in a way that humanely treats those experiencing homelessness while also ensuring and protecting the lives and property of everyone.”