SB Council discusses combatting fire risk posed by homeless encampments
The Santa Barbara City Council may soon declare a state of emergency to address the high fire risk posed by homeless encampments in the city.
Tuesday night, the council voted unanimously on an effort costing upwards of $1 million to establish one or multiple temporary locations to house individuals living in encampments in high fire prone areas. The proposed pilot program would last through the high fire season, which runs through the end of September. Potential sites could include city lots such as the Carillo/Castillo Commuter Lot, City Hall lot and other lots such as the Earl Warren Showgrounds, the former Staples building on State Street, or others.
Tuesday’s emergency hearing came as Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley announced that charges were formally filed against 23-year-old Victor Angel Hernandez of Santa Barbara.
Mr. Hernandez is charged with three felony counts and two misdemeanor counts, including arson of an inhabited structure, attempted arson and reckless burning. He is accused of starting the Loma Fire, which burned over seven acres and damaged two structures.
Mr. Hernandez appeared for arraignment Tuesday for the felony complaint and pleaded not guilty to all charges and denied all special allegations. The case is currently set for preliminary hearing at 8:30 a.m. June 2 in Santa Barbara Superior Court.
While city and fire officials acknowledged Tuesday that Mr. Hernandez was homeless, the fire wasn’t sparked from an encampment and was purposefully set.
City staff will return in two weeks with potential shelter sites. Council members requested to find funding options to expand bed capacity at PATH Santa Barbara, in addition to the new shelter or shelters.
The areas would require portable restrooms, hand wash stations, trash collection, food, showers, medical aid and case management. Around-the-clock security would be required for both the site and surrounding neighborhood.
During Tuesday’s meeting, city staff mentioned several “fire prone areas” throughout the city, including the Highway 101 ramps at Castillo and Garden streets, along the Union Pacific service area, open space preserves, the bird refuge/Los Patos, the open space between Santa Barbara City College and the 800 block of Cliff Drive and Loma Alta Drive.
Public commenters at the meeting included local service providers such as representatives from City Net, Housing Authority and SB ACT, and all agreed on an “all hands on deck” effort to address the issue, and create long-term, permanent solutions for those living in encampments. Other community members commenting said that they wanted to protect the dignity of the individuals currently living in encampments and the surrounding neighborhoods from impacts.
“There is a coalition of service providers ready, willing and able to support you in your decision,” Brad Fieldhouse, executive director of City Net, said during public comment. “We know how to do this. City Net has run a dozen of these emergency response shelters. They need to be safe, they need to be clean, and they need to have the appropriate amount of services.”
Council members expressed the importance in acting now and acting quickly in order to address the issue. City Fire personnel shared with meeting attendees that in the month of May, the fire department responded to 18 homeless-related fires in 23 days — not counting incidents ruled as suspicious circumstances — when a more common rate would be one to two a month.
City staff presented statistics ranging from July 1, 2020, through Monday of this week. Staff received 1,017 requests from the public regarding encampment clearances, and of those, there are 252 daily waterfront clearances, 141 underpass clearances, 300 park locations, 148 CalTrans locations and 30 Union Pacific service areas where encampments are located.
“It’s obvious that if we end up doing a sanctioned encampment that it would have all the services, monitoring and 24/7 security,” Mayor Cathy Murillo said.
Councilman Mike Jordan echoed the need for neighborhood safety, while also respecting the dignity of those being removed from their encampments.
“I’m 100% committed to getting encampments out of high fire hazard areas,” he said. “I’m equally committed to the people that are being displaced having an alternative site to go live in. One of those cannot take place without the other, and I will remain equally committed to both of those.”
Councilman Eric Friedman said that, considering the very dry fire season ahead, “conditions are ripe for more fires unless we do something to try to abate them upfront and very quickly.”
“For too long, we’ve been saturated with problems, but we need to come up with solutions and we’ve been short on them,” Mr. Friedman said. “We no longer have the option to kick the can down the road.”
Councilwoman Meagan Harmon supported putting the encampment shelter in City Hall’s parking lot, citing that the neighborhoods surrounding the Carillo/Castillo Commuter Lot have a “real lack of trust already” because of the impacts already being experienced by the homeless population.
“How do we show political courage? How do we show leadership? What better place to locate it in than the City Hall parking lot?” she said. “That’s us doing our part, all of us on Council, all of us banding together and prioritizing homeless issues as a city.”
Council members Friedman and Jordan and Mayor Pro Tempore Oscar Gutierrez will work on contacting other elected officials in the county, state and federal level for assistance with the endeavor.
“There are so many groups in this community that hold power over the people in the community, whether that’s corporate entities that operate and own or rent large plots of land throughout the city … or religious organizations who also own or rent large plots of land throughout the city,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “The city can only do so much … I’m begging you, literally, for the love of God, help us. Help us address this crisis we’re in.
“Help these people in need, because just to pile it on the city, we’re only one link in the chain.”
News-Press Associate Editor Mitchell White contributed to this report.