The I.V. Free Box may have seen its last days of providing donated clothing to underprivileged residents, unless local government officials and community members can find a way to stem the conflict surrounding the donated items.
The Isla Vista Recreation and Park District (IVRPD) decided to temporarily remove the Free Box — which has been located in front of the IVRPD office at 961 Embarcadero Del Mar for the last 25 years — this summer, based on complaints that people who used the box were misusing it or fighting over its contents and were frightening office employees. In the past, the IVRPD has removed the box around move-out time in I.V. to prevent departing students from using it as a dumpster or damaging it, IVRPD Director Diane Conn said. This year it decided not to replace the box as it had in previous years, voting instead to hold off on its return until it can find solutions to the problems the box was causing.
“The box is right in front of the office and conflicts and arguments disrupt the staff,” Conn said. “I wasn’t happy the Free Box was taken away, but I recognize there are problems.”
Over 40 people attended an IVRPD meeting Aug. 25 to show their support for the Free Box’s continued existence, Conn said. At the meeting, IVRPD staff explained why the box was removed and discussed different ways to solve the problems with the Free Box program. One of the major issues discussed was the fearful environment the conflicts at the box created for district staff.
Kelly Burns, IVRPD director and A.S. external vice president of local affairs, said she and many other UCSB students have also spoken out in favor of reinstating the Free Box, which they said they feel is part of I.V. culture. At the same time, Burns said she acknowledges the problems that have surrounded the box in the past.
“There was a lot of problems and a lot of fights,” Burns said. “There were territorial issues between families.”
Conn said she does not think the Free Box can continue to be a viable resource for I.V. unless people put in the effort to maintain it. The conflicts at the box, she said, have escalated in the last few years because people have been taking advantage of the free clothing available to them.
“Hoarding is a big problem,” Conn said. “Some people take the clothing they find and sell it. They take everything without giving other people a chance to dig through it.”
Michael Nagel, a homeless man who has lived in I.V. for a year and a half, said he got clothes from the box whenever he needed them, but had trouble procuring high-quality garments from the Free Box because of the hoarders.
“There are people who would stay there all day with a pickup truck and would take anything worth value,” Nagel said. “There was always someone there, and it did bother a lot of people.”
Longtime resident Michael Bean, who has lived in I.V. for more than 25 years, said he attended the meeting and was surprised by the number of people who showed up to support the Free Box. Following the meeting, Bean said he decided to found Friends of the Free Box to help develop and implement different solutions to the problems discussed at the meeting. He said he thinks his biggest challenge will be to get more people involved in returning the Free Box to Isla Vista.
“What we really need is more people,” Bean said. “We need good, solid coverage of the Free Box to make sure it doesn’t return to the way it was, and the nine people in Friends of the Free Box isn’t enough.”
Conn said the IVRPD has agreed to bring the Free Box back once enough people have agreed to help with education as well as maintenance of the Free Box. She said she thinks the IVRPD will need more people with good communication skills who speak both English and Spanish to help teach locals how to use the Free Box without causing arguments.
“We need to educate people how to be good to the Free Box and keep it orderly,” Conn said. “Nurturing and education needs to be communicated in a caring way to people who use the Free Box.”
Bean said he is eager for the Free Box to return. He said it is a staple of I.V. and is part of the character of the town.
“The Free Box, a statement in itself about the generosity of the community, it’s important in I.V.,” Bean said. “I see the Free Box as a commons — it’s not really the park districts, it’s the community’s.”