Following the Isla Vista Recreation & Park District’s decision to transition People’s Park back to its recreational capacity — which would subsequently force houseless residents currently living there to leave the park — the non-profit, volunteer organization Food Not Bombs organized a community gathering around the encampment beginning June 1 to support the houseless residents.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Food Not Bombs — an organization dedicated to taking food that would otherwise be discarded and providing communities with free vegetarian or vegan food — has been serving the Isla Vista houseless community with food and advocating on their behalf over the course of Isla Vista Recreation & Park District’s (IVRPD) five encampment sweeps since November 2020.
The latest vote to close the encampment happened at the May 20 IVRPD meeting, where a 3-1 vote in favor of transitioning the park back to its recreational capacity eliminated the last remaining sanctuary space in I.V. for houseless residents, following the closure of Camino Corto Open Space, Sueño Orchard and Del Sol Vernal Pool Reserve in November and Anisq’Oyo’ Park in December.
IVRPD said in a collective statement that all residents of People’s Park have been offered alternative shelter. Despite the original deadline of June 1, as stated in IVRPD’s last meeting, for houseless residents to leave the park, no forced evictions have occurred thus far.
“All individuals will be offered appropriate housing placement. Not all individuals will accept placements,” IVRPD wrote in a statement. “The County of Santa Barbara is facilitating the provision of health and human services to all including mental health services, public health, crisis stabilization, sobering services and eligibility for Medi-cal and other supports. The planned closure of the People’s Park encampment will respect all individual’s constitutional rights.”
In a frequently asked questions statement, IVRPD said that previous houseless encampments in other I.V. parks “created fire and public health risks to the housed and unhoused alike,” and that the parks in I.V. do not have adequate infrastructure to support a long-term encampment.
On June 1, Food not Bombs volunteers and approximately 15 I.V. residents came to People’s Park to make signs dissenting IVRPD’s decision, provide and eat food and make Food Not Bombs t-shirts for community members who requested one throughout the day. Some volunteers camped through the night at People’s Park. The Isla Vista Foot Patrol (IVFP) and IVRPD did not force any houseless residents off park grounds on June 1.
Volunteers and residents showed up at the park again on June 2. This time, IVFP was on the scene but only to help houseless residents who had already agreed to and found alternative housing.
Jonathan Dickstein, a Food Not Bombs volunteer and doctoral candidate in the UC Santa Barbara Department of Religious Studies, explained why Food Not Bombs Isla Vista was holding the event and asked volunteers and community members to bring tents to the park.
“Our point being here today, people bringing tents, people putting up signs and being here is that if you’re going to remove residents from I.V., then you have to remove us all,” Dickstein said. “If we’re here in the parks too, then why not remove us? And if the parks district and the foot patrol seem to only be concerned with houseless people as opposed to housed people, then what does that say about the discrimination we levy against unhoused people?”
Dickstein advocated for the rights of the park’s houseless residents and questioned the motives behind IVRPD’s previous decision to relocate I.V.’s houseless residents into People’s Park.
“The only reason that this camp exists here is because [IVRPD] has forced them out of every other camp in Isla Vista. And that’s why they’re living in the center of I.V., which almost seems at this point to have been a strategic move to make it like ‘Look at this problem. This is completely unacceptable,’” he said while speaking to a crowd of community members.
Dickstein described IVRPD’s sweeps over the past year as “systematic and incremental.”
“If folks have been paying attention to what the Isla Vista Recreation & Park District has been doing over the course of pretty much the past year, it has been a systematic and incremental eviction of houseless people from the parks around Isla Vista,” Dickstein said.
Julia Leary, a Food Not Bombs volunteer, said that they were asked to advise on IVRPD’s COVID-19 Encampment Management Policy (CEMP). IVRPD passed CEMP in August and implemented the policy for the duration of the pandemic, giving it the power to relocate and limit individuals’ acquired space at parks to ensure that “personal belongings and sleeping quarters do not exceed a reasonable footprint.”
“We gave all these comments, and then [IVRPD] said Food Not Bombs advised on this document, and they didn’t accept any of our advice,” Leary said.
IVRPD said that it has “made every effort” to provide resources and assist the houseless community.
“IVRPD … has made every effort over the past year to provide resources to realizing safe and dignified solutions to the challenges facing unsheltered individuals,” IVRPD wrote in its statement. “In the past 14 months, the District has spent more than 50% of our annual operating budget on mitigating issues from encampment activities on park properties, not including the intensive staff time devoted [to] this response, which we are proud of.”
Gary Reres, a houseless resident of the park who will be moving out of I.V. to a shelter, said that he understands the motivation behind the evictions, although he has struggled to find housing and get back on his feet during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We don’t want to be here. We don’t want to be homeless … we don’t want to take up this park. The people from Isla Vista need to have their park back. They do need it,” Reres said. “We want to go somewhere. We want to, [but] it’s really rough right now. With the pandemic and everything — loss of jobs, loss of money … it affects everybody.”
“The city of Isla Vista has done really good, [in] trying to find everybody a place to go. The Public Defender’s Office has worked really hard. And a couple organizations [have] been working hard to get everybody placed. But homelessness isn’t the crime,” he continued.
Nini Ogele, a third-year biopsychology major at UCSB, found the Food Not Bombs event through social media and decided to participate to voice her dissent for the evictions.
“Decriminalizing houselessness is really important to me because [houseless people] are just trying to live their lives,” she said. “Going forward, we need to change mindsets, so we can progress, you know, allow people to have choices and houses.”
One woman, who declined to be named for privacy reasons, attributed her attendance at the Food Not Bombs’ community event to “emotional support and input” for the park’s houseless residents. She was previously houseless for three years, and as a now-housed “success story,” she hopes that community and county stakeholders can help park residents in an empathetic way.
“When I come over here and I see young people or old people or anybody dehydrated, emaciated … It’s really alarming. How could this happen?” she said. “I mean, we’re a civilized community.”
According to IVRPD, People’s Park will officially be transitioned into its recreational capacity by July. IVRPD credited a multidisciplinary team with helping houseless residents find resources and assistance prior to, during and after the transition.
“Our response now, is to let the experts from the multi-disciplinary team, which is composed of representatives of county health and human services departments to ensure wrap around services continue to be offered on site, as they have been since November of 2020, to fulfill the work at hand and ensure that the community in people’s park are given the holistic services they are being offered and deserve,” IVRPD said in a statement.
Correction [June 6, 1:20 p.m.]: This article has been corrected to accurately reflect an interviewee’s pronouns.