The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a year of isolation and drastic change worldwide, with health guidelines put in place to halt the spread of the virus. From houselessness to mental health issues, crises within the Isla Vista and UC Santa Barbara communities became amplified due to the pandemic.
According to 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, the county had concerns early on about social isolation among students in I.V. as a result of closures.
“The concern [was] how people’s expectations were so dashed,” Hartmann said. “Many did come to UCSB, came to Isla Vista, but were cut off from a lot of the social activities, support, everything you come to college to experience.”
“It’s easy for people to get isolated when you have to quarantine or keep your social circle so limited, so it was very much a concern of the university and of our office,” she said.
Such isolation drove some residents of Isla Vista to gather in large numbers despite COVID-19 restrictions, according to Gina Fischer, district representative for Hartmann’s office. As a result, the Isla Vista Foot Patrol issued three gathering citations in April 2020, two citations in December 2020 and eight citations in January 2021 at the peak of Isla Vista’s COVID-19 case count.
Regardless, Fischer said that the Isla Vista Community Services District, UCSB Associated Students and UCSB Health and Wellness student ambassadors conducted peer-to-peer outreach in Isla Vista that kept the numbers of repeat offenses and citations low.
“When school resumed in the fall, there were some gatherings in I.V. that were against the health officers’ orders,” Fischer said. “But once peer-to-peer networks started taking ownership, [and] the Foot Patrol would go visit houses in I.V. that were reported of hosting large gatherings, there were actually very few repeat offenders [and] very few citations ended up being given out.”
Fischer said that despite some large gatherings and public health guideline violations in I.V., the residents of the college town still abided by regulations and ensured that their community remained safe for the most part.
“I think some people like to focus on the fact that there were some gatherings, but in the scheme of things, when you look at the community … To have such few repeat offenders was really a testament to the commitment that most young people in I.V. had to adhere to. We were always really impressed by that,” she said.
Fischer said that isolation coupled with job insecurity were some of the many concerns among the 3rd District community that were voiced to Hartmann’s office.
“All of us have been very anxious — nobody, even in my generation, has lived through a pandemic,” she said. “This has been very stressful … So, we had to muddle through it together, and it meant people had to step up, and in Isla Vista, [the residents] stepped up to get tested, they stepped up when they had to quarantine.”
Mental Health Concerns
At the university level, Janet Osimo, psychologist and assistant clinical director of Counseling and Psychological Services, said the mental health struggles she saw among students varied on a case-by-case basis over the course of the pandemic.
“It really depends on the situation that students found themselves in,” she said. “Some folks had … technology, they had privacy, they didn’t necessarily have to get a job and support the family, whereas other students did.”
The digital divide — defined as the wedge between individuals who have access to technology and those who do not — in what resources students had access to and what others was particularly impactful, and Osimo witnessed the disparity in technology firsthand.
“I’ve talked to … students that were out in their car in front of fast-food restaurants because that’s where they could get technology,” she said.
Along with this disparity in how the pandemic affected individual students’ lives, the ways that different students coped with such difficulties varied as well.
“Some folks really thrived in the Zoom environment,” Osimo said. “They liked not having the … academic pressure of being around their peers and comparing notes. They liked the quiet, the ability to structure their own day.”
“Other students really struggled,” she continued. “They had a difficult time bringing structure to their own day, they had a hard time with focus and attention.”
Osimo also said that the most common issues that students faced during the pandemic were anxiety and isolation, which aligned with findings from a survey by the Jed Foundation analyzing the mental health of college students in Fall 2020.
“There’s even been surveys that have been done and it’s right in line with our findings,” she said. “Anxiety … increased [and] probably was more exacerbated during the pandemic, but isolation, loneliness was something that we have not seen [prior to COVID-19].”
Another issue Osimo witnessed among students was a decrease in confidence to plan for future events and tasks.
“Students really struggled with planning, just because they were experiencing so much change,” she said. “They lost confidence in being able to plan for their future, be able to plan events or what have you. So much was taken away from them, so the ability to just plan for things suffered quite a bit.”
Osimo also said that students with pre-existing mental health issues had their symptoms exacerbated due to the pandemic.
“If they had pre-existing depression, anxiety, eating disorders, alcohol use, many of those things became magnified,” she said. “So we saw a lot of those students reaching out, who had been doing okay [prior to COVID-19], then felt like the pandemic pushed them over a bit.”
Houselessness in Isla Vista
The houseless population of Isla Vista faced their own unique struggles throughout the pandemic. Fischer remarked that the houseless population in I.V. has been a part of the community for a long time but has experienced a sharp increase in size due to the pandemic.
“[After] the shutdown right in mid-March, the campus [and] Isla Vista pretty much cleared out, and all of a sudden, we saw just the proliferation of [houseless] folks and encampments going up everywhere,” Fischer said.
When houseless shelters had to decrease their number of residents to abide by social distancing guidelines, many residents were forced to live on the streets.
In response to the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked that encampments not be dispersed unless alternative shelter is provided. The importance of these encampments was highlighted by Food Not Bombs volunteer Gina Sawaya, who explained that the stability of such a living space provides a safer environment for the houseless residents.
“I hear a lot of folks coming from LA and Santa Barbara who were living in … really rough environments where they were constantly carrying around their belongings, they couldn’t leave anything behind without it getting stolen, they were constantly harassed by the police, constantly being told to move, just being shuffled around,” Sawaya said.
The number of encampments began to build as a result, leading to about 75 to 100 houseless individuals coming into Isla Vista at the peak, according to Fischer.
Dense and cluttered encampments led to three – Camino Corto Open Space, Sueño Orchard and Del Sol Vernal Pool Reserve – being sweeped.
“People are using fire to cook and to stay warm, and they have so many things that are flammable,” Fischer said. “Firefighters can’t even get into these encampments, so they were really dangerous to the residents.”
This led to Hartmann’s office having to think of an alternative housing option for houseless residents — pallet homes.
“We worked with [Isla Vista Recreation and Park District] to get the pallet homes and worked with the county, and we worked very fast to get them up in time for the holidays in December,” Hartmann said.
The pallet homes were designed to function for a six-month period and were considered very successful, according to Hartmann.
“People want shelter, they want stability,” she said. “When you’re houseless, you stay up all night, guarding yourself from attack, and people get really disorganized because they aren’t on a regular sleep wake cycle.”
After Camino Corto Open Space, Sueño Orchard and Del Sol Vernal Pool Reserve were swept, some houseless created encampments at Anisq’Oyo’ Park. However, in response to guidelines from the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District (IVRPD) to clear out of Anisq’Oyo’ Park by Dec. 20, 2020 in order to resume maintenance and address safety issues, around 60 houseless residents left the park and found shelter elsewhere. IVRPD provided People’s Park as an alternative space for encampments following the closure of Anisq’Oyo’ Park.
In May, IVRPD decided to transition People’s Park back to its recreational capacity — which subsequently forced houseless residents living there to leave the park. IVRPD said in a collective statement that all residents of People’s Park were offered alternative shelter.
In response to IVRPD’s decision, Food not Bombs volunteers and approximately 15 I.V. residents came to People’s Park on June 1 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.
According to Kimberlee Albers, the county’s homeless assistance program manager, 41 houseless individuals were served during the program in total. A total of 27 people acquired permanent or temporary housing from the pallet program. Of those 27, one was reunited with family, two were admitted into residential treatment, two were put into safe houses from trafficking and 100% were able to successfully prepare their documents, get medical assessments and connect to mainstream benefits.
“So it was pretty successful,” Fischer said in regards to the pallet program. “Not perfect, nothing is, but the folks that chose to be housed there really took that step to improve the circumstances of their lives.”
Now, Hartmann said that the next temporary shelter option in Isla Vista will be a dormitory-like facility that will function like the pallet houses, offering a transitional option to allow accepted houseless residents to secure permanent housing.
Through it all, Hartmann praised the residents of Isla Vista for their resilience throughout the pandemic and said that this attitude allowed community members to support each other.
“Many of the young people in Isla Vista turned out to be amazingly resilient, and one of the things that surprised me was how eager they were to follow through with public health guidance, and how they wanted to assist in educating their peers,” Hartmann said.