Nine days ago the rain was pouring and the bitter cold was daunting. A group of homeless folks decided they would no longer hide underneath some store overhang or try to set up a makeshift tarp tent in the cold rain. We decided the best thing to do was set up a camp in the central park of Isla Vista to create a community of homeless in defiance of the anti-sleeping ordinance and in support of a safe sleeping space.
I’ve set up my tent on stage and have experienced one of the most positive lessons of my life: how to stand up for what’s right and how to live communally. There are homeless people who share a similar sentiment and who have found a rejuvenation in life because of what’s been established.
Each day, we rise early and eat what food has been donated or purchased by those of us with income. People have shared in the responsibilities of cleaning, cooking, keeping security and outreaching to the community. As of today, seven tickets for sleeping have been issued.
This is something that should not and cannot die. The staff editorial in the Daily Nexus (Feb. 4, “Ghost of Tom Joad: Isla Vista Needs to Build a Homeless Shelter”) mentioned that such a permanent campground is unreasonable and that a shelter is more fitting. First of all, most shelters are congested and demoralizing to many people. Almost everybody in this encampment agrees that a shelter is inadequate to meeting our needs. We want community, a sense of freedom and respect, and a socially and physically comfortable place to rest and store belongings. This encompasses what we mean by safe sleeping space.
Second of all, I agree the parks are a public space for all to enjoy, but with the area of green space in this community, I believe we can afford to offer a small space for this project. Taking into consideration the establishment of the I.V. Teen Center, which meets the needs of the Latino youth in our community by offering after-school and other programs, the I.V Recreation and Parks District set a precedent for such needful allocation of park land. It’s about balancing the needs of our community. If we were asking for every park to be open to “squatters,” that would be another story.
When I graduated from UCSB last spring, I decided to turn my back on the rewards and privilege that a degree offers in this capitalistic society. I chose to live out of my car and put my energy and knowledge into creating change for the homeless in Isla Vista. I’m comfortable to a certain extent with my lifestyle, but because I made a choice to be homeless my situation is very different from many others. They don’t have a choice, because most can’t get a job if they want to nor can they get housing if they want. It’s not that simple. Whether it’s discrimination in the workplace or simple inability to labor because of health conditions, there are many barriers that most people don’t understand.
Furthermore, I don’t have to deal with the everyday stress that some live with because they look homeless. I get woken up at night by the police for sleeping, but others are much more vulnerable to the stereotypes and subsequent discrimination, dehumanization and harassment that goes along with being homeless. There are some depressing stories out there about the treatment that these folks live with each day, stories that you would have to hear firsthand from people – stories that include having beer bottles thrown at them, being beat up at night as they sleep, getting kicked out of local businesses because of their appearance, etc. This stress is something most people in the university cannot comprehend, but for some it’s overwhelming. This is why most people cannot understand the alcoholism on the street, which I feel is a symptom, not necessarily a cause, of homelessness. Not all people on the street are alcoholics and some are even recovering, but I’ve met many people who explain that they didn’t drink as much (or at all) before they hit the streets.
People need a foundation in order to make change in their life. Whether it’s searching out a living wage in order to live indoors, or fighting alcoholism, this campground would provide just that. Homelessness is something that plagues each city in this country, and access to land is an international struggle for impoverished people. We have in Isla Vista a unique place with a deep history of creating social and environmental change. We have the opportunity to set a model for breaking not only the cycle of oppression homeless people experience due to harassment from policies like the anti-sleeping ordinance, but also the cycle of homelessness for those who want off the street.
If you find yourself sympathetic with our ideas and actions, we invite you to meet with us today at Anisq’ Oyo’ Park at 4 p.m. We will share our history, our present situation at the encampment, and let you know how you can support furthering our cause. In solidarity.
Chris Omer is a UCSB graduate and an Isla Vista resident.