Hands Across Montecito: With Railway Cleanout Headed Our Way, Hands Team Hits the Tracks

By Sharon Byrne   |   April 18, 2023
Christina, Casey, Deputy Brian Dickey and Assistant Fire Marshal Alex Broumand on the Montecito tracks

Two weeks ago, the Hands team was on a countywide conference call regarding the upcoming camp clearing by Union Pacific. Outreach teams should attempt to get everyone camping along the railroad tracks into shelter before the clearing. Shelter beds, of course, are scarce. PATH, the Rescue Mission, and the Salvation Army are the only providers, and they’re always full. We also find most individuals experiencing homelessness do not want to go into the shelters if there is a bed available because they find the rules too draconian, and shelter occupants too dangerous sometimes. The Hands Across Montecito team decided to hit the tracks early Monday morning. We don’t have a firm date on when Union Pacific is coming through, but it will be this month.

Piles of dead wood on Caltrans right-of-way adjacent to the 101.

We’ve experienced the effects of camp-clearings in other jurisdictions. When Goleta and Santa Barbara clear camps, we tend to see new people experiencing homelessness turn up in Montecito. Sometimes they only pass through. Sometimes they are here for a few days. Sometimes they establish a new camp in our area.

The Hands Team met in Sea Meadow, thanks to Jane Olson. Andrea Hein, Ron Sickafoose, Joanne Moran, and I joined up with Christina and Casey from City Net. Deputy Brian Dickey met us on the tracks, and MFPD Assistant Fire Marshal Alex Broumand joined us at Olive Mill Rd. It was cold and foggy out.

The zone between Miramar Beach and Olive Mill was completely clear. No trash present, either, which is a huge win. As we moved up towards Butterfly Lane, we found a couple of camps and a lot of clear-cutting of brush by Caltrans. 

Most of the camps were being used, but no one was present. City Net had visited them before, as they come out Mondays and Fridays. We found one occupied camp, and someone was bicycling away from it, near the Olive Mill exit sign.

Jimmy Mercer was in the camp, visiting. We’ve been working with him to get housing for a while now. He loves cooking, and he really wants a kitchen. He was approved for a housing voucher in January, but the date for him to actually get on the housing list has been pushed back to May. Jimmy is getting up there in age, and is quite polite. He’s been out on the streets for decades. We’d love to complete the journey of getting him indoors.

Assistant Fire Marshal Broumand expressed concern about the clear-cutting by Caltrans, resulting in piles of dead wood. Caltrans is attempting to make it more difficult to camp on their right-of-way by foliage removal and fencing. They’ve erected a lot of new fencing in Santa Barbara along the freeway. After spending millions on repeat camp-clearing, they felt that making their right-of-way less receptive to camping was a smarter use of funds. Several trees went down in the aftermath of the seemingly never-ending atmospheric storms and high winds since the beginning of the year. The issue is that wood, if left here, will dry out in the summer months and become a fire hazard. We just had a fire at the Hot Springs exit, a repeat campsite.

There was another live camp nearby, and the inhabitants had excavated some of the site, quite close to the freeway wall. We’ll have to alert Caltrans to that.

We enjoy working with Deputy Brian Dickey. He climbs over fences and goes to inspect a camp for us first, to make sure it’s safe to approach. 

One of the individuals we worked with just moved into the Salvation Army Hospitality House. We’re excited for him! We met him in January, by the cemetery, and he got himself clean and sober, as the county had no treatment spaces available for him. We’re really proud of him, and as he’s quite young, hopeful about his future. 

We sure appreciate our Montecito volunteers. We’ve recently welcomed Beth Sullivan, the Executive Director of the Coast Village Improvement Association, to the team. It’s inspiring to see Montecitans out doing outreach, putting their hands directly on this problem, and helping solve homelessness here. It truly takes a village, and we’ve got a great one in Montecito!  

Sharon Byrne is the Executive Director of the Montecito Association


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