City to consider temporary shelter for high fire season
As Santa Barbara enters high fire season, city officials are brainstorming what they can do with the many homeless encampments around the city and Highway 101 that pose fire hazards, especially following the Loma Fire that burned 10 acres last week on the Mesa.
The CDC stated that clearing homeless encampments increases the potential for infectious disease spread. That guidance remains in place, meaning service providers are still recommended to improve sanitation in the encampments rather than remove them.
This guidance has been in place over the course of the entire pandemic, but several encampment fires have occurred just this month in the city and county.
Therefore, the Santa Barbara City Council is calling a special meeting for 6 tonight to consider establishing an area where unsheltered residents can sleep. The meeting can be viewed on City TV Channel 18 or streamed live at www.santabarbaraca.gov/cap.
“The fire last Thursday was frightening for a lot of people. I really give credit to our first responders, fire and police,” Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo told the News-Press Monday. “That has us thinking we really need to take some action … Homelessness does have impacts, as we saw. Even if this particular fire was started by an arsonist, there have been fires out of the homeless encampments, and we need to take action.”
The mayor said she envisions an area in a city parking lot, such as the Carrillo Commuter Lot, or one of the city’s parks as the designated shelter for those who have been living in homeless encampments.
She said she wants the area to allow unsheltered individuals a place to sleep and provide food and bathrooms for them. But she noted the effort requires volunteers and 24-hour professional security.
“The promise I can make is that anything we put together would have security and monitoring, and we wouldn’t want that facility to have negative impacts on the neighborhood,” Mayor Murillo said. “But people really need to step up. If they’re really concerned about the homeless, they would support us creating this facility to help people. It’ll help them, and it’ll help everyone.”
The mayor added that the facility or lot designated for homeless individuals living in encampments would be just a temporary service for the summer months of high fire season.
The Santa Barbara City Fire Department was unable to provide any statistics on encampment fires locally ahead of today’s meeting.
But City Fire Marshal Joe Poire provided some background as to the most common causes of the fires.
He told the News-Press that cooking and warming fires “easily account for at least half of the total,” but other fires can start from smoking methamphetamine, which was the cause of the fire near Donovan Electric on the lower Westside that occurred in early April.
In addition, Chief Poire said arson stems from a variety of reasons: societal revenge, spite revenge or serial fire setters.
Those seeking societal revenge typically feel they’ve been wronged by society in some way, are down on their luck, angry with police enforcement actions or denied benefits from a social service or nonprofit. These individuals see justification in their actions or the ability to outsmart authorities.
The fire marshal said spite revenge is “very common when one homeless person burns another’s camp,” but that motive can also range from “revenge for an insult, to a failure to pay for prostitution services, to reneging on a drug deal.”
He added that serial fire setters have “a mental illness that is complex, but we see it a lot.”
Furthermore, when City Fire and Santa Barbara Police arrive at these scenes, Chief Poire said the fire setters scatter, so officers sometimes wait for hours for them to slowly drift back. They can be held liable for the fires depending on the circumstances — for example, the fire marshal referred the Donovan Electric fire case to the district attorney, asking for a complaint for 452 PC Unlawfully Causing a Fire.
“It is one of the lesser arson sections and is designed to have a charge for those who commit acts that are so reckless that any reasonable person would know they would be likely to cause a fire,” Chief Poire said. “It can be a felony.”
René Eyerly, the city’s environmental services manager, told the News-Press that the city expects the CDC’s encampment guidance to change after June 15, but until then, the city provides outreach through CityNet for case management at all encampments and offers shelter beds and motel rooms as bridge housing before requiring the unsheltered to leave an encampment.
“CalTrans has a restrictive site-by-site approval process for clean up,” Ms. Eyerly said. “We have been able to partner with them on a pilot to clear the Garden and Castillo Street ramps, though they are being re-inhabited. It takes ongoing maintenance of the sites to prevent the unhoused from setting up camps again.”
CalTrans District 5 Director Tim Gubbins told the News-Press that CalTrans made sure to follow all CDC protocols throughout the whole pandemic, working with local agencies and nonprofits in the city/county to make sure those in the encampments could be offered the help they need.
“There’s been a lot of concerns with this,” Mr. Gubbins said. “The governor, in his May revised (budget) last Friday, proposed a substantial increase in the amount of money that would be designated for the homeless, so if that survives the budget process — which needs to be ratified by the legislature — then there will be more resources, more tools for the community to use.
“We look forward to working with the city and county to figure out how we can get these people into the help they need and out of an area that is not safe for them or the travelers.”
The details of the possible encampment shelter facility will be ironed out at tonight’s special meeting open to the public.
“People want to get it off their chests that it was frightening to see that hillside on fire,” Mayor Murillo said. “We’ll deal with the person who has been arrested. That’s one thing. But we don’t want any more fires in the brush. It’s dangerous for everybody.”