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California and the West

Lawyer Fights to Help Homeless in Santa Barbara

October 08, 2000|VERONIQUE DE TURENNE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA BARBARA — This has long been a place for the privileged and the poor. Recently, though, their coexistence has grown uneasy.

Glen Mowrer, a lawyer whose retirement didn't take, sees it. Homeless people sleeping in parks, on beaches and in illegally parked recreational vehicles. Some survive that way, others--increasingly targeted by anti-camping laws--are fined or jailed.

It's all too much for Mowrer, whose first job as assistant to the city attorney in Beverly Hills bored him silly. When he became a public defender, he found his calling. Today, with a warrior's zeal born of 25 years in Santa Barbara County's public defender's office, Mowrer has come out of retirement to volunteer for the homeless. His success in court--he got 20 of the past year's 200 "unlawful camping" citations overturned--has led to a more daring demand.

Mowrer wants the city to recognize RVs as low-income housing and to make a legal site for poor RV dwellers to park overnight. Recreational vehicles, which have beds, kitchens and portable toilets, can serve as homes only with a safe and legal place to park overnight, he said.

"The poor and the homeless will always be with us--you have to recognize that," said Mowrer, who volunteers for the nonprofit Legal Project for Social Justice. "In Santa Barbara, where costs have escalated so much, it's just shocking. They don't really have a choice of where to sleep."

Up to 2,000 homeless women, children and men in the city seek a safe place to sleep each night. From 60 to 120 RVs nightly need legal places to park.

Those who draw disability or Social Security benefits get about $740 each month. Federal guidelines say housing should cost them about $200 per month.

The working homeless, many of whom earn minimum wage staffing Santa Barbara's restaurants, private homes and resorts, make about $11,000 per year. For them, the government says that paying $275 a month in rent is fair.

But the city's rental vacancy rate is a punishing 2%. A one-bedroom apartment that rented for $650 one month jumped to $900 the next. The tenant, now one of Mowrer's clients, couldn't afford it. He's homeless.

In today's market, that apartment is a bargain. One-bedroom units go for $1,100 and up. The median home price in the region tops $550,000. Factor in the recent loss of about 400 SRO (single-room occupancy) hotel rooms that charged low monthly rates to the area's poor and elderly and, advocates say, the situation is dire.

City and private agencies operate several homeless shelters and support centers. The city has banned camping in tents, sleeping on the beach at night, and even sitting on State Street.

Some officials, weary of a problem the ever-more-upscale city can't fix, say the homeless should move to more affordable cities, like Bakersfield.

That's laughable, said Peter Marin, an author and longtime homeless advocate.

"I first came here in the late '60s, when downtown was a little gray area of locally owned stores and inexpensive rents," Marin said. "Downtown was dotted with half a dozen hotels with inexpensive monthly rates."

Homeless advocates want Santa Barbara's elected leaders to copy a law in Eugene, Ore., that allows tent and RV camping in designated places.

"This city needs to recognize the RV as a legitimate home," Marin said. "It's just a question of Santa Barbara being willing to take responsibility."

As it has done in the past. The very spot near the railroad tracks where homeless people camp today once was known as Jungleville. Now fronted by the city zoo, it belonged to John Child, whose wife allowed hobos to build shacks where they could ride out the Depression.

But that took compassion, something Ken Williams, a social worker, fears is fading.

"There's a huge divide in how people in Santa Barbara here respond," Williams said. "A part of Santa Barbara wishes the homeless people would just disappear, no matter what it takes. Others are moved by the humanity, so they do what they can to help."

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