SANTA BARBARA — Just because you don't build it, that doesn't mean they won't come anyway.
That's precisely the problem in this postcard-beautiful town on the Central Coast, where a lack of affordable housing has not stopped poor people from creating makeshift homes.
An estimated 400 to 500 urban nomads live in their vehicles on the gentrified streets of downtown and along the wealthy beachfront.
Now the city has taken direct aim at the recreational vehicle dwellers -- which merchants and residents have called unsightly -- with a new ordinance that prohibits RVs from parking on city streets from 2 to 6 a.m.
Homelessness is hardly a novel problem, especially for California's boutique coastal cities, which have long restrained growth to preserve their small-town virtues.
As a result, housing prices and rents have soared to levels that forced the poor, the disabled and the rootless onto the streets, homeless advocates say.
On a recent weekend day, more than a dozen RVs were gathered at a beachside park in Santa Barbara. While families in tidy vans arrived for Saturday morning soccer games, RV dwellers waited for haircuts from a man who set up his chair under a tree. A sign attached to one RV read, "A law against sleep is an unjust law."
At least 90 citations already have been issued since the law took effect March 19, said City Atty. Daniel Wallace. But a judge has issued a restraining order suspending the law temporarily.
Because the RV dwellers are poor and often on fixed incomes, a $23 parking ticket is a serious threat to their well-being.
"This is a class war," said Peter Marin, chairman of the Committee for Social Justice. "Either they want to see the poor out of town or they don't care what happens to them."
Linda Miller, 46, who has lived in an RV for the last four years, said of the new law, "The mental stress is torturous. I have watched my friends break down because they don't know which way to go."
Miller talked about the RV lifestyle in a tree-shaded park across the street from the Santa Barbara Zoo. She works for an advocacy group called Homes on Wheels, which has filed suit against the new law. The group hopes to establish a motor home park in town for the RV dwellers.
Sitting nearby was the founder of the group, Nancy McCradie, who has lived in recreational vehicles for 22 years. The 57-year-old woman raised her two children in one and shares her current RV with a boyfriend who worked as a carpenter until he became disabled with arthritis and hepatitis.
It is estimated that seven in 10 homeless people are disabled, either physically or mentally, and most survive on government checks ranging from $600 to $800 a month.
That's not true of McCradie. She was forced into the streets by the need to escape an abusive marriage. She has adapted to a life on wheels, even referring to her RV key, as her house key.
"I cannot handle apartment living," she said. "I can't stand the closeness of people." Besides her boyfriend, she keeps company with three hybrid wolves and 20 cockatiels, which she keeps in a small warehouse.
McCradie is a veteran of the many political fights surrounding the homeless issue over the years. A decade ago, she placed dummies on the steps of City Hall to protest a law against sleeping outdoors. She has walked across the country and to Sacramento in support of homeless rights.
A past mayor frustrated with her tactics told her she should leave town and move to Bakersfield. Instead, she has stayed in the fight. She insists the new attack on the RV dwellers will not cause her to back down.
"I'm not leaving," she said in between taking calls on her cell phone from other homeless activists around the state. "Nothing ever gets done if you hide."
Though Homes on Wheels is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, Marin cautions that the group does not represent all of the city's RV dwellers. He said McCradie thinks living in an RV "is a viable lifestyle."
But most -- more than 70% -- once lived in more traditional housing and would like to get back into a dwelling that isn't attached to wheels, Marin said. The problem is the lack of space for the poor. Marin said there is a three-year waiting list for federally subsidized housing.
At one time, Santa Barbara had several hundred single rooms available downtown, but many of those have been snapped up in recent years by an influx of immigrant laborers who often share the flats with several others.
The rest were lost when so-called skid row hotels were upgraded to serve tourists.
There are two RV parks in the city, but they are frequently full and are considered too expensive by the poor. The city has one shelter, but Marin said that supplies 200 beds for an estimated 3,000 homeless people in the county.