[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
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.
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
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.” --
doesn’t mind the sound of commercial jet airplanes screaming
overhead as his RV rots in the bushes next to Steelhead Recyclers
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
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.
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