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Off the grid
[They get by on less, living where they can
By Nathan S. Welton and David Downs
Photos by Nathan S. Welton

The South Coast’s whitewashed gleam sure is shiny. It’s so shiny, in fact, that many lives just fall off radar and vanish into oblivion. When news of social expats does hit, it’s often of the riffraff, unkempt and hassling State Street’s fortunate.

But that’s just a few.

The rest, unwilling or unable to cough up for regular apartments, are exercising their options.

Some live in Goleta’s post-apocalyptic junkyards, while others spill from derelict trailers in Carpinteria. A few survive in an encampment just feet from a busy train track, begging at a nearby off-ramp. And two live on an organic “farm” near downtown, one in a Mongolian yurt and the other in a meditation hut.

“Lots of people in town are living in what used to be a garage or a shed or a playhouse … and this is how the landlord can make the mortgage or pay their property taxes,” said the farm’s owner, who asked to be identified as Alan. “Maybe they’re 70 years old and are on a fixed income … and they’re looking at ways to live — and this is how to do it.”

One way or another, choice or chance has left many residents off the grid. --NATHAN WELTON


Carpinteria Camper Park

For Rent: Camper trailer next to Highway 101. Electricity and sewage hookups included. Communal shower, bathrooms. Bring your own propane. Rent: $400 a month, camper not included.

So goes a possible ad for a space in the gritty, rundown Carpinteria Camper Park at 4096 Via Real.

More than 100 mostly Latino men, women and children inhabit the dusty park, packed with rows of ancient camper trailers that haven’t moved in decades.

In the 1970s, this site was a vacation destination for families visiting the South Coast. Post-housing crunch, it resembles the ramshackle, makeshift encampments one sees in Baja, Mexico.

The Camper Park, however, has recently taken a turn for the better. People’s Self Help Housing has ended the slum-lord management that had 11 people — six adults and five children — crammed into a single camper.

A security guard and fence now bars nonresidents and the local gangs that would visit the dark, dismal camp at night. Public drinking bans are strictly enforced.

Juana Sanchez, a resident of 11 years, said she likes the new owners, but also would like to see the $440-per-month rent come down in the future.

— DD

Yurt life

As the sun sets over a misty South Coast, most residents turn on the lights and crank up the heat. But those on an organic lot near downtown bundle up, light their candles and hang out in the garden.

The owner, who asked to be identified as Alan, calls the land a Sustainable Living Research Station, and he’s pursuing a master’s degree on the topic. He said his tenants — er, “caretakers” — embody the low-impact lifestyle, operating the station almost off the grid and having practically no effect on the city or the neighbors.

Still, they push the legality envelope — but that’s normal when the housing’s crunched.

“One caretaker’s place, a utility shed that needs no permit, is a meditation room in which he can’t live,” said Alan. “So he’s what you’d call an amazing meditator, because he sometimes does it for eight hours at a time and has a tendency to snore when he does it. The other caretaker, in the yurt, is beyond amazing — I don’t even think she sleeps.”

Alan explained that what’s happening on his lot is not uncommon in Santa Barbara, where people inhabit alternative structures in which they’re not supposed to live.

“I think this speaks to a messed up global economy and the political and economic structures around it,” he said. “People are trying to live in a place like Santa Barbara, where it’s virtually impossible for two people making an average salary to buy a home … This is a viable option.”

But the residents also say the site acts on their deeper urges to live consciously. The fridge acts on a timer, and the outdoor shower is built of recycled metal. The faux-redwood deck upon which the yurt rests is made of recycled bottles, and fruits and vegetables receive water from an up-to-code graywater system connected to the sink and tub.

A large, black container acts as a solar water heater, creating a near-boiling shower, and a solar panel will soon arrive. And Alan built the bathhouse — kitchen and facilities within — with mostly recycled materials.

“Welcome to the flush-it-away society, where most people are not connected to and aware of the flow of resources,” said Alan. “Where do things comes from and go to? (Realizing that) is what the research station is about.” -- NATHAN WELTON

At the junkyard

Steve Carver doesn’t mind the sound of commercial jet airplanes screaming overhead as his RV rots in the bushes next to Steelhead Recyclers in Goleta.

He said it’s the city of Santa Barbara and the region’s insensitive policy toward the homeless that really sends a military veteran into a fury.

Up until a week ago he and perhaps more than a dozen others had a place to store and sometimes sleep in their RVs on Steelhead property, all for the bargain price of $350 per vehicle. Electricity came from extension cords. Port-a-potties took care of sanitation.

But all that ended in late September when Goleta officials ordered Steelhead to clear out the dozen or so campers, trailers and RVs on its three-acre property, nestled between Highway 217 and the Santa Barbara Airport.

Steelhead’s managers claim they didn’t know people were residing in the trailers. They said they were merely renting the space to mechanics and artisans who store a variety of things on the company’s property. What they store is their business, Steelhead managers said.

Goleta officials, however, saw dozens of RVs and assumed they had dwellers, especially after an August camper fire threatened lives and forced a Fire Department rescue of two men.

Now, rundown RVs line the private road surrounding Steelhead, and Carver is headed to Lake Tahoe just as soon as he can sell his $3,000 rig.

Other RVs are still on the property, he said, but the longtime, secret haven for the homeless is officially closed.

— DD

Hoe boys

When trains rocket beneath bridges, winds and sounds bounce off walls, causing explosions of gusty chaos.

The commuters nestled in their cars surely haven’t had iron roosters rip through their living rooms, but it’s a regular occurrence for Tony, Dave, Red and Shorty beneath the Las Positas Road overpass.

“It’s really not much of a hassle living here,” said Dave, who hears about three trains a night. “The main hassle is the dirt and not showering regularly.”

The encampment is a permanent residence on private Union Pacific property, off-limits to police and well below the radar. Its inhabitants pass their days reading, talking, listening to radio shows and drinking 8.1-percent, 24-ounce Steel Reserves.

They’re adamant they’re not bums, since, they say, bums stay in the same spot forever. Instead, they prefer the terms urban campers or tramps. Or hobos, like the hoe boys from the Great Depression who jumped trains with their tools in search of work.

“When I hopped on the rails, the old tramps said this will get in your blood and won’t go away, and I have to admit they were right,” said Red. “But I keep on coming back to it for the same bizarre reason. I guess I have more freedom this way.”

But nothing’s truly on the house. A passing locomotive recently killed the camp dog, Friday Morning Sunshine, who now rests beneath a nearby tombstone carved from meager tools. Sure, living off the grid is free. It also comes at a price. -- NATHAN WELTON