SANTA BARBARA, Calif., March 2, 2007 — -- This is a city for people who have arrived in life. Located an hour and a half up the coast from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara's flowery hills are covered with multimillion dollar homes that have a commanding view of the Pacific Ocean.
But the coastal community is also home to a growing population of people who have no roof over their heads, the homeless who wander the streets and sleep on public benches.
And now the city has a new class of resident, not quite homeless -- but doesn't have a home either. They are the working poor who live in their cars, trucks and campers. Call them the mobile homeless.
"We've lived in the homeless shelter, and it's full of people that are drunk and on drugs," said Carlos Cortez.
Working but too poor to afford rent in this expensive city, Cortez and his wife, Naomi, scraped together enough money to buy an old recreational vehicle they can live in.
It's a phenomenon that is happening all over the country as people are priced out of local housing and have nowhere else to go where life might be better.
California alone has about 350,000 homeless people. Santa Barbara has 2,000, some still trying to make it in the working world.
"Some work in the service industries, some work in the local hotels and motels," said Gary Linker, director of New Beginnings Counseling Center, which works with the homeless. "Some of them work for the city and county," he said.
Naomi Cortez supervises the deli counter at a local supermarket in Santa Barbara. "I have many co-workers who rent rooms for $1,400 a month, and they don't have a full kitchen like I have … [or] their own shower … their own bath," she said.
For years, people like Carlos and Naomi quietly parked their vehicles near the beach or on quiet roads in residential neighborhoods. But they were constantly running afoul of the homeowners in this image-conscious city.
And when the city tightened parking restrictions to squeeze out the vehicle-dwellers, they lived in constant fear of having their homes towed away. "I would be stressed to the max all the time because I didn't want to lose this thing," said Derek Tuck, standing in the doorway of his RV after a day of work.
But even while the mobile homeless were wandering in search of a safe place to park, many of Santa Barbara's downtown parking lots were empty all night, every night. That was until New Beginnings worked with the city to open the municipal parking lots.
Now the mobile homeless are allowed to come home from work in peace and park overnight under something called the Safe Parking Program. "It brought back into my life a routine," Derek Tuck said. "I come here a certain time. I stay here a certain time. I get enough sleep."
There are restrictions; only five vehicles to a lot, 7 p.m. to 6:30 am. But after years of trying to push the homeless around, and possibly out, Santa Barbara has come to the realization that if this is the way things are, the city is going to work with it.
The aim is to make this a temporary situation and try to help people get a permanent home. Helene Schnieder of the Santa Barbara City Council said, "If the reality right now is their only source of safe shelter is their vehicle, then we have to acknowledge that, understand it, and do what we can to move them out of that vehicle and into a home."
Shaw Talley, a counselor with New Beginnings, makes the rounds of the parking lots at night, visiting mobile homes. He is credited with helping as many as 100 people find more permanent homes.
"We can't just keep pushing the problem to other cities and counties, Talley said. "This is a weird alternative, but it is an alternative."
Relaxing after dinner in his old RV, Carlos Cortez said, "We want to move up. We just want to get on with our lives." But for now, home is where he parks it.