How a spirited group of homeless people took on City Hall
Sad as it to contemplate, there have always been destitute people living on our streets and in our hills, just as there have always been extremely poor. We’re no different from every other American city and town in this way. Historians tell us that gypsies pitched camps on lower Chapala Street in the nineteenth century. Homelessness was a vexing issue even before the American Revolution, though it didn’t have a name. Governing councils in the burgeoning colonial towns were repeatedly ordering “drifters” to move along–or else. Being without home or family attachment is simply an anathema to us as a society; a challenge to our most primal and cherished values, like belonging . . . to something, someone, somewhere.
The story of homelessness in Santa Barbara is a painful tale of conflict, defiance, helplessness, oppression and failure. Yet there are surprising, uplifting threads of tolerance, compassion and empowerment running through it too. It has twists and turns that stand in stark contrast to other coastal California cities struggling to attract tourists–places like Santa Cruz and Santa Monica. No other American city, for example, had a hobo village with its own mayor and governing council, shielded from the long arm of law-enforcement for 48 years on 17-acres of sterling private property off Cabrillo Boulevard. Few cities and counties had a homeless movement as urgent, organized and diverse as Santa Barbara’s was in the 1980s. In 1986, homeless activists and their supporters here brought the city of Santa Barbara to the brink of becoming the “Selma” of a national homeless civil rights movement and the nation’s major newspapers and network news channels covered it. The late homeless activist Mitch Snyder, standing on the steps of City Hall, announced the plan to bring hundreds of homeless here from around the country to crowd our jails and courts if the city didn’t repeal its “dirty little law” banning sleeping in public. The slogan was: “Go to Santa Barbara, go to sleep, go to jail.”
Perhaps it was the fact that the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, was a Refugio Canyon resident when homelessness arose as a national issue. (Reagan told David Brinkley at the time that the homeless men sleeping on grates near the White House were there by choice). Or maybe it was because the national press corps got a bit bored down at the Sheraton in the mid 80s, waiting for something to cover while Reagan reposed at his ranch. Or maybe Santa Barbara just breeds a special kind of activist.
Whatever you’re point of view on the homeless, any proper history of the Santa Barbara homeless begins with the hobos and Lillian Child, a wealthy widower from the East Coast. It was the Southern Pacific Railroad that brought the first contingent of unattached, middle aged and aging men of varying degrees of sobriety to Santa Barbara. Some had fallen on hard times; others just preferred an unfettered, marginal life. Many were able to work, even the drunks. Mostly they survived on the seasonal harvests, moving from town to town, city to city, by train living in wooded, uninhabited lots at the edge of the railroad tracks called “jungles” where they’d be left alone. Santa Barbara had its own hobo jungle for almost a hundred years, stretching from the bird refuge to Garden Street along the railroad tracks on Cabrillo Boulevard. It was a thick, uninviting, tangle of trees, bushes and weeds, ideal for invisible camping. Development chipped away at it through the years until 1987, when the city bulldozed the last remaining section. The jungle is at the center of much of this story.
In 1917, Child was taking a walk on her property, known as The Child’s Estate. Sandwiched between what is now the Bird Refuge and El Ninos Drive. On her stroll, Mrs. Child encountered a police officer shooing some of these hobos off her land in a eucalyptus grove edging the railroad tracks. The three were obliging the officer, packing up their bedrolls, when Child appeared. But instead of accusing them of trespassing, she accused the officer instead and ordered him off the property. The men could stay as long as they wanted, she told him, if they were peaceful and kept the place tidy. She repeated those words often in the ensuing years, ushering in a quirky, compassionate chapter of Santa Barbara history in which we became knows as “the smallest city with the biggest heart.” At its peak, as many as 50 homeless men lived there in relative peace, if not comfort. They elected a mayor and had a governing council. In the later years, they even galvanized a handful of charitable minded citizens to help them build a utility building with bathrooms, showers and a recreation room.
On Christmas every year, Child brought the men a pot of soup and gifts of cash. When she died in 1951 (leaving the property to the Santa Barbara Foundation) she insisted the men be allowed to live out their lives on the property. The request was respected, in spirit anyway. The foundation deeded the land to the city and in 1963, as officials were readying plans to turn the property into a park, (and ultimately the zoo) the three remaining hobos were moved to an adjacent property and given small cabins donated by the Miramar hotel.
Ken Williams has been a social worker with the Santa Barbara Department of Social Services since the late 1970s. His official job is to connect homeless citizens on General Relief (or welfare) with disability (Supplemental Security Insurance or SSI). His strong opinions on the issue of homelessness and how elected officials should handle it are colored by his war experience and do not, he tells me right away, represent the county department for whom he works.
Williams said the comparatively small numbers homeless men in Santa Barbara in the mid-1970s stayed mostly out of sight. His clients then were mainly middle-aged recovering alcoholic men with a spattering of mentally ill. Then the Iranian hostage crisis was resolved and celebrated with a ticker-tape parade, triggering a collective flare up of post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam vets. “It reminded them of what they didn’t get,” Williams said. “It was literally like a floodgate opening. They were hanging on before, living in the hills, self-medicating with booze and drugs. It was like they walked out of the jungle in Vietnam with long beards.”
Women on the streets were still unheard of. But changes were transpiring in the economy, the mental health system and the housing market, ultimately to converge and unleash a deluge of destitute souls onto the nation’s streets.
The most obvious was the economy, the recession of the early 1980s, which kicked unemployment to nearly ten percent. According to Christopher Jencks’ in “The Homeless,” jobs for unskilled workers were disappearing faster than the number of workers that needed them. Rents were rising faster than tenants’ incomes in these years too. The federal government was already retreating from affordable housing production, but when Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1981, housing programs lost over 20 billion dollars before President Bush the senior took office.
Add to the mix a trend favoring the treatment of mentally ill patients in outpatient settings over inpatient hospitals, which began in the 1960s. By the late 1970s, anyone who could be treated outside a hospital was. The policy was exacerbated when lawsuits brought by liberals, civil libertarians and other mental health experts, made it extremely difficult for the mentally ill to be committed against their will. Then state legislatures began cutting funds for state mental hospitals further– sending more sick people without resources or family into communities, according to Jencks. The problem was, communities weren’t prepared to have them. Board and Care facilities weren’t funded properly and most were out of businesses within a decade. Williams recalled the popularity of “greyhound therapy” in California then—giving the mentally ill a shot of Thorazine and putting them on a bus to another county. “Everyone did it,” he said.
In 1979, Santa Barbara Police Chief Al Trembly was noticing an alarming increase in the number of unkempt “drifters” or “transients” around the city and county, sleeping in parks and on beaches. His concern was heightened when two students camping on an Isla Vista beach were brutally hacked to death. The assumption of many was that one of these “transients” did it.
Trembly proposed an ordinance that would make sleeping at night in city parks and beaches, and at anytime in all other parts of the city, illegal. There was barely a debate on the measure before the city council approved Ordinance 4007, as it was called; a benign beginning to a law that would cause so much anguish in the ensuing years.
If Lillian Child is the grandmother of Santa Barbara’s homeless movement, Nancy McCradee is its mother. She founded the Homeless People’s Association (HPA) in 1982 and still lives in a recreational vehicle—check parked in inconspicuous nooks to avoid strict new RV parking laws. Her husband is Bob Hansen, or Protest Bob, a longtime homeless activist who was a candidate in this fall’s City Council election.
With her long blonde hair, glasses and nylon windbreaker 5tk-year check old McCradee is a blend of 1960’s earth mother and blue-collar worker. She lacks the far-away, withdrawn gaze that many homeless people get from living in the elements year after year. Nancy delivers newspapers and works at Read N’ Post on Coast Village Road for a living. Delivering papers, and the requisite 4 AM wake-ups, is something she’s done since the 1970s. She is, as she puts it, “a middle class American fallen on hard times.”
McCradee moved into a van in 1981 when her first husband began physically abusing her. They had a son, who was little at the time. Nancy recalls putting a mattress on her vehicle’s floor, filling it with essentials and fleeing in the night with her boy wrapped in a blanket.
“I felt safe [in the van] because I could run,” she said. They stayed in the parking lot of McConnell’s Ice Cream and Carrow’s, then down by the jungle. She met other homeless people, some living in vehicles as well, others camping in the dense foliage. And for a few months, it worked for her. It was a like a commune, she said. “We took care of each other.”
But there was a dark side to the jungle too. As more people moved in, some became territorial. There was drinking and, on occasion, violence.
McCradee recalled a night in late 1981 when a woman was raped. She and other homeless women called police and ran to her aid. When officers arrived, McCradee said, they banged on the door of her van and threatened to arrest her for illegal camping. It was the beginning of a month-long crack down on illegal sleeping and camping all over the city, she said and a painful, contentious enforcement policy, vernacularly known as “sweeps.”
“It would reach points where it would become hazardous there,” said Lieutenant Mike Mitchell, who was on the police force at the time, of the jungle in the early 80s. “When the population started growing or there were other problems, like assaults. I don’t think anybody was harassed, but it was a new level of enforcement that people on the street hadn’t experienced.”
The policy pitted the city and the homeless against each other and sowed the seeds for a political movement that, though quieter, continues today.
Peter Marin is a Santa Barbara writer who publishes frequently on homelessness and is also Chairman of the Committee for Social Justice, a nonprofit organization that protects the legal rights of the marginalized. Marin said police crackdowns on homeless related laws like illegal sleeping and camping, open containers, public urination and–later—aggressive panhandling were periodic and part of delicate balancing act.
“Things would reach an equilibrium and then something would happen,” Marin said. “More people would come to town, or they’d [the homeless] inch over towards State Street” which would trigger a period of enforcement” he said. ”Basically, the laws are for containment and control of the homeless. I don’t think even [policy makers] would say the idea was to have no homeless, just not so many that it becomes a visible issue.”
Rob Rosenthal, Professor of Sociology at Wesleyan University, was a graduate student at UCSB in 1982, hired to study Santa Barbara’s homeless problem. He counted 956 arrests on homeless–related charges by city police between December 1982 and November of 1983. Although 1981 was the year arrests and citations for homeless related ordinances ballooned from zero just two years before to double digits. Social service workers at the county, the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, had awakened to a sad new world. “It was like a completely new day all of a sudden,” said Williams of the sheer numbers of homeless on Santa Barbara streets. “Everybody in all the agencies was drowning.” Poor coordination between the county departments meant many of the homeless mentally ill fell through the cracks. Only about 75 shelter beds were available—35 at the Rescue Mission and 40 at the Salvation Army. The program director of Catholic Charities began providing breakfast to homeless from the organization’s storage area and almost immediately lines of around one hundred snaked down Haley Street on those mornings.
Lupe Martinez owned a bakery across the street and remembers those lines well. “It was my first experience with the homeless,“ he said.. They would come into his store and ask for money and food and to use the bathrooms. “I didn’t mind letting them use the restrooms,” he said. “That is our humanitarian responsibility.”
But McCradee remembers mainly a chronic inability to get sleep, and how the enforcement policy took her to the edge of psychosis. “It was crazy every night. I would take my son out of bed and [the police] would literally follow us to a restaurant,” McCradee said. One night, she stopped a police car in the middle of Milpas Street and begged him to arrest her. He didn’t. But a few days later she decided it was time to fight back.
The first meeting of Homeless People’s Association (HPA) was on February 1, 1982. It was the moment the sleeping and camping ordinances became a political problem for the city.
“When I arrived [at the meeting] there were thirty men standing in the rain on the corner of Santa Barbara and Cabrillo Streets, soaking wet because they were so desperate . . . the only way they could sleep was by going to jail,” McCradee told me recently. Their first act was to set up an information table at the fig tree, manned by HPA president Ed Kozdrey, also known as Pres Ed. The table offered tips on how to fight their tickets, at the time prosecuted mostly as misdemeanors. But Ed Mannon, a mainstay of the homeless community here for 20 years, had one of his cases dropped after requesting legal representation and a jury trial, so he advised other homeless people to do so too.
The table was a provocative; a symbol of the turf battle between the city and the homeless, according to Rosenthal, who later published a book “Homeless in Paradise” on his years with the homeless here. Someone from the city attorney’s office reportedly went down to look at it but evidently found no basis for action.
Homelessness wasn’t the national crisis it would soon become, but the increasing presence of scruffy-looking people hanging around downtown was stirring up the business owners. Tom Williams owned an Oldsmobile and Cadillac dealership on the corner of State and Gutierrez Streets. He didn’t share the anger of other merchants, but recalled well the men who used to sit on the curb outside the hotel across the street, drinking. “We got in the position where many of our clients, especially the elderly and the women, didn’t want to bring their car in to be serviced themselves,” he said. “They’d call and say ‘My car needs service, but I don’t want to come down. Can you drive it?’”
It wasn’t just the homeless, Williams said, it was the drunks, the perceived undesirability of lower State Street and the construction of the freeway underpass that took over a decade to complete. “You can’t really scratch all that up to the homeless,” he said.
Others did. They lobbied for a ban on public drinking in the city and eventually the council responded. In 1983 an ordinance making drinking illegal in two public parks passed and bit by bit, it expanded to include the rest of the city.
Sheila Lodge, who was Mayor at the time, remembers the protests against it. “They really puzzled me, because alcoholism is such a huge problem in every level of American society. We we’re being accused of, once again, being heartless because we won’t allow them to drink on the street. Well many of them have alcohol problems.”
Kit Tremaine, a longtime Santa Barbara resident, Montecito socialite and oil heiress from Louisiana, walked her dog along Cabrillo Boulevard every morning, and became curious about the people emerging from the jungle. Having participated in anti-war demonstrations in the 1960s, Tremaine was no stranger to activism. So she began asking questions. One of the people she queried was the head of UCSB’s Sociology Department, Dick Flacks. Flacks’ recommended she hire one of his doctoral students, Rob Rosenthal, to study the problem.
Rosenthal had two rent control campaigns already under his belt and a congenital affinity for politics. “It was right up my alley,” he said. “But I really didn’t know anything about homelessness.”
Tremaine financed a trip for Rosenthal, McCradee and activist Suzanne Riordan, who was representing single parents, to attend the founding convention of the National Coalition of the Homeless in Chicago. They returned infused with new ideas, strategies and energy. One of the ideas was to combine the homeless organizations into a coalition—The Santa Barbara Homeless Coalition. Next, they went to the Santa Barbara City Council and asked for a moratorium on sleeping and camping laws and a shelter or legal public campground. The city refused.
“Our focus would have been on providing permanent affordable housing,” said Lodge. “What needed to go with it were various social services such as the county provided. We weren’t in a position to do that.”
Rob Pearson, Executive director of the Santa Barbara Housing Authority, said that, indeed, the city has been better than most in area of affordable housing. But the population here was growing too fast to keep up with the demand. According to Rosenthal, low-income tenants were disproportionately footing the bill for keeping Santa Barbara small.
Despite the strong policy of enforcement by the police department, by 1983, there were more homeless in Santa Barbara than ever. The police created a “Street Crimes Task Force” that year – a revamp of the former Zebra Squad. It’s was designed to reduce “street level, or nuisance crimes” in the downtown and beachfront area. But a key component was helping merchants get the homeless away from their storefronts. Led by Lieutenant Charles Baker, four undercover cops began working out of a room donated by a downtown business owner. On the streets, the homeless quickly named them “the Baker boys.”
With the new drinking ban, the task force had a powerful tool. In January 1984, they reported having made 10,696 arrests, 15 percent of which were “transients.” The most frequent charge was public intoxication. Crime on lower State Street did decrease. But a number of homeless complained the Baker Boys were spying on them from a building across from the fig tree.
Violations of homeless related laws were being enforced as infractions now — tickets carrying fines between sixty and a hundred dollars–which few of them could pay. That’s how the warrant game came into being.
Marin described it this way.
“Guys would just let their tickets just pile up, police would let their tickets pile up, and at a certain point, unknown to anybody, they’d come and arrest you,” he said. “You’d serve your time in jail and get back out in the street and the whole thing would start over again. An oddly rationalized system that wasn’t really practical for anybody.”
James McGruder won the record for the most citations of any homeless man or woman in Santa Barbara hands down. He’s been present for every major homeless protest since the early 80s and is still on the streets. When he took a fall into a creek bed ten years ago, somehow word of the accident reached Rush Limbaugh, who shared the news with his “ditto heads.”
In the early years, McGruder was handsome, smart and charismatic. But drinking and homelessness robbed him of all three gifts. His back, he said, looked like Toro Canyon Road and drinking was the only way to manage the pain. “I don’t get along with pills,” he said. He once sipped from an open bottle of wine he’d found, into which pieces of fiberglass had been placed. He spent four days in intensive care because his esophagus was so badly torn. He said his life took a turn for the worse when his older sister, a beautiful woman who raised him while his parents were drinking, slipped off a cliff while hiking, and died. That was in the 1970s.
A number of homeless, including McGruder, said they didn’t hate the police, including the Baker Boys. McCradee recall recalled a jocular, even competitive relationship with them. They’d sometimes look for her at one of the coffee shops and say, ‘Hey what are you guys going to do next?“
A homeless man named Ricky once lived on a patch of unimproved city property by the zoo. Ricky had colon cancer and many of the police knew it. A couple of officers used to check in on him regularly to see how he was doing, according to Marin. Some police would drop by the jungle and drink coffee with the homeless. Twenty minutes later, another squad car would roll up and ticket them for open containers. McGruder said a policeman once took his beer can and poured it over his head. McGruder said he got up and called 911 from a pay phone. “I call the cops on the cops sometimes,” he said with a smile.
“We cannot discover the principle of policing that is adopted by the police. They will not discuss it with us, “ Marin said. “When they look for people, why they look for people, who they ticket, who they don’t ticket. They say this law [the sleeping ban] is largely complaint driven, but we don’t know.”
If elected representatives in the city and county had an understanding of the causes of homelessness or sympathy for their plight, a report released by “Task Force on Lower State Street Problems” in the summer of 1983 destroyed any faith in that possibility. Known as the CAVE report—an acronym for Committee on Crime, Alcoholism and Vagrancy. It was written by officials from the Santa Barbara Redevelopment Agency, the County Social Services Department, The Old Town Merchants Association, County Alcoholism Association and the Lower State Street Task Force. Its three pages of recommendations included “relocating and dispersing street people to controlled environments for processing to travel out of the area” and “warehousing problem cases with long-standing histories of criminal activities.” It was never officially adopted, but on the street, the homeless felt it was the policy anyway.
In January 1984, Rob Rosenthal released a report estimating there were between 1,500 and 2,000 homeless in Santa Barbara.
“At that time, it was easy for people to think of homelessness as basically an individual question,” Rosenthal recalled, “that people just weren’t together or were lacking something, an approach I call “Slackers and Lackers.’ But if you looked at the structural data, you could see that it was, again, musical chairs; that in Santa Barbara, as in most places, affordable housing had disappeared in the previous ten years and there were going to be homeless people no matter what the characteristics of the individuals.”
That spring, the National Catholic Reporter ran a story critical of Santa Barbara’s homeless policies and quoted Lodge as saying “The city would be very happy to have the homeless move on” and that “some of those people are very unpleasant to deal with.”
“I suppose it sounds heartless,” said Lodge ,” but it was realistic. It would be nicer not to have to deal the problem anywhere.”
It was the first of many articles on Santa Barbara homeless to appear in publications such as National Geographic, Time, Newsweek and The New York Times. Lodge said the publicity was aggravating.
“What really aggravated me personally was all the misinformation that went out about Santa Barbara in Time magazine. Oh I was furious. Here we were, the only city that was really providing services in the tri-counties, and we were being dumped on.”
That summer Kit Tremaine hired Willard Hastings Jr. to legally advocate for the homeless. Hastings was the senior attorney with the Santa Barbara Legal Defense Center (LDC), a nonprofit legal advocacy group specializing in poverty law. With Tremaine’s backing and the reams of homeless-related tickets piling up, the LDC became the legal arm of the Santa Barbara Homeless Coalition.
Hastings, now retired, is a gentle, soft-spoken man with a heart for the poor and disenfranchised. For 15 years he framed Santa Barbara’s homeless problem in stark moral terms. In his legal arguments and countless opinion pieces published locally, Hastings accused the city of criminalizing poverty. Along with Marin and Williams, he was the conscience of the community. He was also a stubborn and determined litigator.
“We brought several suits against the camping law. We bounced around from court to court and we couldn’t get the support of the court. Our major focus was it infringed on the right to travel. You can go around the country and all of a sudden you’re in Santa Barbara and you can’t sleep. But they wouldn’t buy it.”
That summer the city tried but failed to get matching funds from a California State Homeless program. Instead, they gave 23,000 dollars to Catholic Charities to provide emergency loans for rent. A joint city county task force on homelessness disbanded after only 18 months.
Construction of Fess Parker’s sprawling pink Cabrillo Boulevard Hotel got underway in the fall of 1984, obliterating a large portion of the jungle. Many homeless had to move west towards State Street, making them more visible, to the consternation of West Beach merchants.
In December, the body of a homeless man named Kenneth Burr was discovered near the railroad tracks, a single gunshot wound to his head. If the murder frightened the homeless, which it did, it was mild compared to the alarm they experienced a few days later, when threatening flyers were deposited near the Amtrak station. They read: “This is a warning to all you Tree People. You are not welcome here. I will make life difficult for you as I did for Mr. Burr.” And it was signed, “B. Ware.”
The papers reported police suspected the homeless of having circulated it, for sympathy. That theory was dropped a week later when the real author turned himself in. apologizing. Police quickly determined he wasn’t Burr’s killer and released him.
But the homeless began sleeping in groups in well-lit areas anyway. They asked the city to be lenient on enforcement of the sleeping and camping laws.
Paul Aiello owned a small market near the fig tree. The “tree people” took food from his dumpsters, scattered garbage and frightened customers, he said at the time.
And in fact, the fig tree and its surrounding park had become the symbolic home to the homeless. McCradee recalls its Woodstock-like climate. People shared whatever they had . . . beer, cigarettes, food, joints, she said. Some students from Westmont College began a feeding program in which they would hand out lunches.
“In the Bible, the fig tree has always been a symbol of shelter,” McCradee said. “We couldn’t leave that place. It was like home.”
The West Beach Merchant’s Association wasn’t in a partying mood. Headed by Aiello, they urged the city to pass a handful of ordinances making life “less comfortable” for the homeless: criminalizing dumpster diving, fencing the fig tree, and stopping Westmont College’s food program. The ordinances didn’t pass, but the students, under pressure, did move their food program to the beach. Ultimately that location failed as well because of a separate ordinance forbidding dispensing free items on the beach and the program died. The homeless later reported that a few dumpsters in town had been doused with bleach.
“It did not happen. It did not happen,” said Lodge, who looked into the accusation after reading about it in Time magazine. “It turned out one grocer, whose store was near the fig tree, threatened to do that because the homeless were going through the dumpster and just throwing it all over the parking lot.”
Meanwhile, on the corner of State and Micheltorena, the Reverend Bob Challinor, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, was responding in a different way. A growing number of homeless people had begun hanging around the church, and Challinor was coming to terms with its moral implications. Word of mouth had established Trinity as a safe place because it had been giving out food and occasionally transportation money in the previous year. But the situation was getting worse, Challinor recalled.
“Seeing these people sleeping around the church, on the porch and in the yard, you could just see the need for a shelter,” he said. “There was a small group of us who were concerned about this, Reverend Tony Perrino from The Unitarian Society, Reverend G. Hughes from All Saints by the Sea. We met to discuss what could be done. Everyone had different ideas.” Lodge, who worshiped at the Unitarian Society, attended the first meeting.
But Challinor had already resolved that Trinity would do something. With its Vestry’s approval, the church soon turned its wide, wood paneled parish hall into a men’s dormitory. “We didn’t have space for women at that time,” Challinor recalled. The men, who were screened for drugs and alcohol, came in at five PM and left at 7 AM. Later an upstairs balcony for women and children was opened.
The Trinity shelter lasted about five months, by which time, four other churches — First Presbyterian, Unitarian, First Christian and First Methodist, had also expressed an interest in helping. The shelter began rotating amongst them, one month each. The group called itself the “Inter-Religious Task Force.”
Challinor knew the rotating shelter, proctored by parishioners, was a Band-Aid and told the city council as much. But they still did not recognize a role for themselves.
Former Mayor Hal Conklin was a city councilmen then, as well as chairman of the Santa Barbara City Ordinance Committee .. “Before 1981, the council was more than relatively conservative and took a very strong position that it wasn’t the government’s responsibility to be dealing with shelters. If you can’t afford to live here, move to Fresno type of thinking,’ he recalled. “It wasn’t till the mid 80s that the council was in a position where you had enough council members that were willing to say, ‘Okay, what can we do to help?’ Even then they weren’t quite sure what they could do. There were very few funds in the general fund you could use.”
Seriously doubting the city’s willingness to open a shelter, Challinor and his clergy colleagues began looking for a site of their own. Eventually they found an empty Quonset hut on East Cota Street, a former furniture and computer shop. The rent was high and it needed remodeling but it would do. The Santa Barbara Housing Authority was the first to throw in 10,000 dollars. Then the clergy went to the city. “At first they were resistant. One council member said ‘Let the churches do it.’ But Conklin and the late Tom Rogers, also a council member then, persuaded them to contribute $10,000 dollars on the condition the county did the same,” Challinor said. The county did and that first $30,000 dollars paid for bathrooms, a new kitchen and a space for a livable dormitory.
It was the beginning of Transition House, a mainstay of Santa Barbara’s non-governmental homeless support system for the past 17 23 tk years. It had 35 beds and, like Trinity’s original shelter, served only men. As the 1980s wore on, not only did the numbers of homeless increase, but for the first time, they began to include women and children.
It was Challinor who originally suggested that beds should be offered to people actively working to turn their lives around. The shelter opened officially in April 1986 and was full within the first few months.
“This business at first was just a place to stay overnight and have some food. But later, the programs started to take shape, programs that helped people get jobs.’ Today Transition House is one of Santa Barbara’s strongest nonprofits and 27 churches are involved in the running of it, along with financial support from the city and county.
Shortly after Ken Williams started at the Santa Barbara Department of Social Services in the late 70s, word came in there was a woman on the streets. It was so unusual, he said, the reaction was close to shock. The head of the department at the time, Art Nelson, sent someone out right away to get her. But before the decade was out, not only would women on the streets be commonplace, but children too.
Being a social worker and a vet, Williams saw homelessness from both sides. The war, and the government’s handling of veteran issues afterwords, had killed his faith in his country’s concern for its citizens. He supported the campaign to decriminalize sleeping outside, but as a social worker, he and other outreach workers just wanted to get them off the streets. “These were damaged people,” he said. “No one wanted to admit a lot of them were mentally ill.”
While the political battle proceeded, Williams was trying for more immediate, concrete solutions. With money from a handful of anonymous donors, he embarked on a 26-year-long quiet campaign of helping the homeless in his off-hours. Later, public health nurse Linda Harris joined him. His first idea was to create a house for pregnant, homeless women. They called it AMBR house–A Mother’s and Baby’s Respite. Other projects included a soup kitchen and a childcare center for homeless kids called Storyteller, which is still going strong. Williams remembers early Storyteller planning meetings when they’d pass a hat around for rent money. “I remember sitting at some of these planning meetings and my heart was kind of torn. I was thinking ‘Maybe we’re putting too much effort into this, because I know when America realizes there are homeless children, they’ll do something.’ I’m sitting in this meeting thinking that. Maybe we shouldn’t be putting so much energy into it?”
The people who felt the homeless were entitled to sleep on the street and the people who thought they needed help off the street were separate factions, Williams said. “What brought us together were all the deaths.”
In September 1984, McCradee launched a voter registration drive among the homeless. David Collier, a disabled vet living in his van was one many who submitted a registration card to the County Clerk Recorder. Under address, he and others wrote: One hundred Montecito Street. Nothing unusual about it, except that 100 Montecito Street was Fig Tree Park, where sleeping and camping were illegal. The Clerk-Recorder’s office returned the applications saying they were invalid and requesting clarification of the addresses. In the end, none of them were processed and they didn’t vote in the November presidential election.
Hastings, having scant luck with appealing the camping rulings, decided to sue Santa Barbara County on the grounds that these men and women were being denied their constitutional right to vote under the equal protection clause of the constitution. He began the process in California State Superior Court. “You don’t usually start there, but they will take important matters that effect human rights as a matter of first impression,” Hastings said. “But by a vote of 6 to 1, they said, ‘You’ll have to start in Superior Court.’” So he filed a suit in Santa Barbara Superior Court, where Justice Ronald Stevens denied it.
Back at the fig tree, McCradee, Hansen and a handful of homeless activists, including McGruder, Mannon and Pres Ed, were feeling a measure of political muscle. The trip to Chicago, the support of Kit Tremaine, Rosenthal, Hastings, and other “housed” activists like Marian, had bolstered the sense of being part of a movement.
Hansen, a handyman by trade, had a coupon at a local hardware store. One day in the midst of the voter registration drive, he used it to buy four mailboxes. One went up at the fig tree, the rest he reserved for later.
“I was nervous because this was going to be a real challenge.” McCradee said. “For every move we made, the city would have a reaction. It was like a chess game and they were not going to let this go.”
McCradee notified Santa Barbara newspapers and KEYT that something was going to happen that night. “We all stayed around the fig tree. We couldn’t leave. We couldn’t move because we were going to protect that mail box with all our might,” she said. “At 10 pm so many cop cars came, probably seven or eight. They came at us from different directions. Bob comes running and puts his arms around [the mailbox].”
That’s when she called the media. Then they formed a circle around the tree, holding hands and singing.
“It was one of the most symbolic things we ever did,” she said.
The police took the mailbox down that night and arrested Hansen. The next morning, another one went up.
In November, the day before Reagan was re-elected, a number of homeless activists, including McGruder, walked up to Santa Ynez to protest outside of Reagan’s polling place. McGruder shimmied up a flagpole and unfurled a banner that read: “The Homeless can’t vote in Santa Barbara.” It made national news.
Back at the fig tree, Hansen and six other homeless men staged an impromptu voting-rights protest of their own. Initially they simply stood and held signs up on the island between the north and southbound lanes of Highway 101. What triggered the escalation, no one is exactly sure. McCradee remembers one of the protesters, Scott Green, said aloud to himself “Fuck’em” just before walking onto the highway with a piece of cardboard. Then the light turned green. A towering semi-tractor trailer inched towards Green in the intersection, McCradee said. Green met its challenge–a rush of power in the heart of a powerless man was perhaps what caused him to risk his life. Holding his chest out in a mixture of pride and defiance, he approached the semi, and then he lay down like a lamb on his cardboard.
It didn’t take long for the police and press to arrive. They were all arrested to the sounds of cameras clicking away. Tremaine bailed them out of jail and they were at the Tuesday City Council meeting the next day, observing.
Hastings filed an appeal of Judge Stevens’ decision to the Second District Court of Appeals in Ventura, which unanimously overturned it in December 1985. Denying voters’ applications for registration on the grounds that they listed a city park as their residence violated their right to equal protection, the court said.
“The county asked them to reconsider, but they wouldn’t do it,” recalled Hastings.
With that victory, Santa Barbara homeless activists, dirt poor, disabled and powerless, enfranchised every homeless man and woman living in California–a right that endures today.
The homeless had another victory that year, albeit a fleeting one. Hastings challenged the city’s sleeping and camping bans on constitutional grounds in Santa Barbara Municipal court. “Only the poor were being targeted,” he said. And on March 15, 1985, Judge Frank Ochoa found the sleeping ban unconstitutional. It was overly broad and applied mainly to transients sleeping in parks, parking lots and beaches, Ochoa stated.
“If this ordinance is applied equally, the infant sleeping in the carriage on State Street is committing a criminal act,” Ochoa wrote.
But the city appealed the ruling and the ban was reinstated.
Still, it was a taste of success.
In August 1985, David Kurtzman and James Trammel, cadets from the Northwestern Preparatory School, murdered a young homeless house painter named Michael Stephenson as he slept in the Alameda Park gazebo. They stabbed him 17 times before rolling him over and slitting his throat. His last words were said to be “Oh no my friend. No.” The phrase became a slogan for homeless civil rights movement here, appearing on posters and political buttons. Challinor recalled hiring Stephenson to do handiwork around Trinity in the months preceding his murder. “He helped move my office,” said Challinor. “He was a nice kid. It was really terrible for everyone.”
Mayor Lodge commented that if Stephenson had been obeying the law he wouldn’t have been killed – a comment the homeless said epitomized for them the city’s lack of understanding. There were only 110 shelter beds on the south coast, many with strict religious requirements. Today, Lodge acknowledges the comment’s harsh tenor, but still believes it accurate. “Five students were killed sleeping on the beach in the late 70s,”she said. “It’s just not safe.”
Stephenson was the second homeless man murdered in less than a year and many remember it as having a bonding effect, pulling the homeless and their supporters together emotionally. Meetings of the Homeless Coalition, now operating from an office on lower Chapala Street, were alive with debate, dissension and constructive planning. But some of the quieter resented the political activity, believing it was making their lives worse –if possible.
“In all political groups, in all groups, you have people who don’t like each other, who don’t want to be associated with each other,” said Rosenthal of that period. “Some of that went on, but at the same time, given at first an apathetic at best and unsympathetic at worst general public and power structure, [the coalition] got an amazing amount of things done.”
Their specific goals were to overturn the sleeping and camping laws, or, failing that, to obtain a legal camping site. They also wanted some sort of a day center, where they could shower, make calls and receive job training. A more general goal was to change the attitudes of local government towards the homeless.
But all their efforts to have the ordinances overturned by the courts had failed. Hastings planned one last appeal of sleeping ban to the U.S. Supreme Court. Beyond that, civil disobedience was their only tactic left, he said. Allowing themselves to be arrested and demanding jury trials had yielded little to that point. There was only one more card to be played and it was an ace.
One coalition member had a connection to Mitch Snyder, the national homeless activist. Snyder came to the nation’s attention in 1984 when a 51-day water fast wore President Reagan down sufficiently that he agreed to build a five million dollar homeless shelter in Washington DC. The campaign drained Snyder’s health before the eyes of a sympathetic nation and, at death’s door, Reagan blinked, offering to build the shelter. But he refused to promise a five million-dollar facility. Snyder appeared on “60 Minutes” shortly thereafter and the shelter evolved into a 14 million-dollar model facility.
Snyder was invited to Santa Barbara to attend a LDC press conference and rally on the steps of City Hall. The event was to announce Hastings’ appeal of the Sleeping ban ruling to the United States Supreme Court. Kit Tremaine paid Snyder’s travel expenses and on March 26, 1986 he appeared at City Hall in his trademark turtleneck. About 30 homeless men and women and other activists greeted him in De la Guerra Plaza along with network television cameras and reporters from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.
Snyder proceeded to lambaste the city’s homeless policies and vowed to make Santa Barbara the “Selma” of the national homeless movement.
“War has been declared here in this town,” he said. “We will come in numbers you haven’t seen before, from all across the state and all across the country. We will come to Santa Barbara to commit civil disobedience, to break your laws and fill every jail cell you’ve got, to take over every public building until we break the backs of your dirty little laws.”
Since he hadn’t mentioned the plan to any coalition member, the homeless and their supporters were as surprised as city officials. And some worried.
“The reason he choose Santa Barbara is because it’s small and focused and Reagan lived here,” said Hansen. “It [the protest] wouldn’t have worked anywhere else.”
Two days after the Snyder rally, one hundred and fifty homeless gathered in De la Guerra plaza for an all-night candlelit vigil. Father McCoy joined them in the morning for an Easter Sunday service in which he reminded the city that the Franciscans, under Father Junipero Sierra, had camped in Santa Barbara while the mission was under construction. His phrases were punctuated by the crowd with: “Oh no, my friend, no.”
Snyder returned to Santa Barbara several times that summer. On one of the trips he met with Lodge. Later, he met with Councilmember Hal Conklin, Chair of the Ordinance Committee. Conklin said he and Gerry De Witt, the most liberal council member then, were beginning to soften their positions.
“I think there was a feeling among some groups like the Citizens Planning Association and others, that if the council acquiesced to the hard-liners, then we would have given into all of the developer interests,” Conklin recalled. “On the other hand, if you gave in to the homeless, there would be this backlash reactionary reaction and the council would get thrown out and we’d be back to where we were before with all these arch conservatives running the town.”
Having just been re-elected, Conklin didn’t feel particularly vulnerable. But others, including Lodge and Tom Rogers, who wanted to run for supervisor, did.
Lodge said she met with Snyder twice, once at City Hall and once in the motel where he was staying.
“Mitch had his own thing going and I don’t know what it was,” Lodge said. “Certainly the people he was trying to help needed help. The way he went about it, I don’t know.”
When Snyder came to a Homeless Coalition meeting that spring, he made it clear they all would need to be ready to commit acts of civil disobedience if he and his organization, the Committee for Creative Nonviolence, were going to get involved. There was some dissention but eventually they agreed to commit to his plan. But they also resolved to work for a breakthrough, so it wouldn’t be necessary.
Posters arrived from Washington DC advertising the civil disobedience campaign; they were torn down as quickly as they went up, according to Jane Haggstrom, a psychiatric social worker who wrote her dissertation on the campaign. A petition for repealing the sleeping law garnered 960 signatures and was delivered to City Hall by Rosenthal. Weekly organizing meetings were held in Pershing Park to prepare the homeless for committing acts of civil disobedience, according to Haggstrom.
Behind the scenes, Mayor Lodge was finally talking with Tremaine and Rosenthal. They lobbied hard for an end to the law and a drop-in center for the homeless. Lodge suggested a new task force on homelessness, but held firm on the sleeping ban. Rosenthal said Lodge gave him her home phone number and behaved as if the Homeless Coalition wasn’t such an irrational organization after all.
“That’s the great irony of the situation,” recalled Rosenthal “The coalition, and certainly the HPA, had always been the bad cop. And then, the funny thing is that Snyder became the bad cop. So in contrast we look pretty reasonable and suddenly the city council and mayor, who didn’t really want to deal with us, are calling us and asking, ‘can we intercede and keep Snyder from doing this?’ And really, that’s the social movement biz. Without a bad cop it’s tough to get people to listen to you.”
Lodge disputes that account.
“I’d been talking to them all along. God no.. When Rob first came up with his report, after all, it was presented to the City Council.”
Conklin also met with Snyder in private. As Chair of the Ordinance Committee, any change in the law would have to start with him.
Lobbying on both sides was intense, according to press reports at the time. In one week that summer, Lodge received 500 calls about changing the law, mostly in opposition. Many citizens, especially from the business community, thought the city would be caving in to threats from an outsider.
Bob Phinney, owner Ruby’s State Street Café in 1985, was dealing with the homeless on a daily basis. He recalled one fellow, angry with him for something, staging a one-man picket line on the curb out in front of the restaurant for a few weeks. Phinney thought bringing Snyder to Santa Barbara was a mistake. “He was an opportunist,” Phinney said. “My business was selling food to people. His business was making The Homeless Coalition stronger so that it would enhance his fame.”
Still, he met with homeless activists more than once at his restaurant. “I said, ‘Get real guys. You’re creating a problem. You cannot enable people. If you want a person to reach their potential, you can’t enable them,’” he said, referring to policies that would provide more homeless services.
As the summer wore on, pressure on the council mounted. Perhaps the Doonesbury strips were the humiliation the council needed to prod them into acting. On August 18th cartoonist Garry Trudeau ran six consecutive strips of Doonesbury cartoons, published in the shank of national papers, lampooning Santa Barbara’s homeless policies. Now the entire nation was laughing at Santa Barbara.
Conklin denies the council was embarrassed. There was more a sense of impotence, he said. “You get all these people focusing on what you should do. You’ve got one side saying resolve this issue and get rid of all these people, and you’ve got another side saying stop being heartless, be compassionate, and nobody knows any real things to do that will make any difference. So you’re sitting there feeling dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t.”
Over one hundred people signed up to speak at the council meeting on August 18th. Nine television cameras and even more newspaper photographers turned the City Council chambers into a hothouse in both temperature and feeling. Loud speakers were set outside on the porch for the overflow crowd. Conklin recalled council members taking their positions quickly. Jeanne Graffey and Sid Smith, each strongly connected with the Downtown Organization and the business community, voted against any loosening of the sleeping ban. But Lodge, DeWitt, Conklin and Lyle Reynolds all voted in favor of amending it to allow sleeping in four city parks– including Pershing Park and Fig Tree Park. The camping ordinance was narrowed however, making it illegal for anyone to use camping gear, like tents, tarpaulins, and cooking utensils, on city property.
“It was true,” Lodge said recently, “counting all the people that really didn’t have a bed to sleep in, they weren’t enough beds, and so they did need to have some place to legally sleep.”
But that wasn’t the end of it. “You have to understand, we initially allowed the sleeping in the parks and then Bob Hansen and some others came and talked to us over the noon hour and said they didn’t really want to sleep in the parks. They just wanted to continue to sleep in the places they had been sleeping,” Lodge recalled. That included places like under freeway crossings, by the Southern Pacific right-of-way.
That’s how Hansen remembers it too. The parks the city had legalized for sleeping were too visible, he said, and would have led to problems. “I knew the homeless were drinking too much. So I thought it would be nice to have a place that wasn’t right near a hotel.” So, within a few weeks, the sleeping ban was amended again to allow sleeping on any unimproved city property.
“Everybody got mad at me, for going back,” Hansen recalled.
The victory was sweet for the homeless and the threatened recall of the council members that voted for it never materialized. But it didn’t end the conflict between the city and its homeless citizens. As the decade played out, there were more protests and campouts in De la Guerra plaza. The homeless tried in vain to get a legal campground. In 1987, the city bulldozed what was left of he jungle, forcing campers again into view. A new series of protests followed a new series of ordinances. In 1990, the sleeping ban was partially reinstated, and the camping ban loosened. In 1992, it became illegal to sit on State Street between the zero and 1600 blocks. In 1997, it became illegal to aggressively panhandle. This year, restrictions on RV parking have made it virtually impossible for anyone to live in a recreational vehicle in the city.
Yet the homeless and their supporters have neither given up or given in. The dream of a public shelter and day center came true in 1999. Casa Esperanza has 70 transitional beds and 30 respite beds year round and 100 additional shelter beds in winter months. Not enough, according to Marin and many others. In 1998, anonymous donors help to create The Committee for Social Justice, to replace the LDC, which closed its doors after Tremaine’s death. Its legal arm –called The Legal Project–has brought a suit against the city for restrictive RV parking laws.
Tom Messman is Editor-in-Chief of a newspaper about homelessness called “Street Spirit.” It’s published in San Francisco and sold by homeless citizens. He said Santa Barbara’s homeless movement inspired other California communities. “It’s astonishing that in a wealthy seaside resort town like Santa Barbara, some of the best and most inspiring forms of activism have arisen to challenge this trend of criminalizing the homeless.”
by Isabelle T. Walker