Vagrant camps in park generate college concerns

Nick Mukhar

Vaquero sports dominate Pershing Park, but that’s only half the story. 

The park is a favorite resting spot for the local homeless community, and spotting a sleeping bag beneath a tree is just as common as watching a diving catch in the outfield. 

Lately, multiple reports of disturbances by transients in Pershing Park have prompted college administrators to consider the development of a “safety zone.”

“We worry about the safety of these kids,” said Eric Fricke, director of security.

According to the college’s crime log, open containers, vandalism, marijuana consumption, panhandling and masturbation have all taken place at the city-owned park, among other minor violations of the law. 

The most common complaint about the homeless in the park concerns their behavior during City College sporting events. 

“There have been occasions when I’ve had to talk to [the homeless] about their conduct,” said Mike Warren, City College athletic director. “Particularly smoking cigarettes and open containers.”

While Warren sympathizes with the disorientation and difficulties that being homeless can cause, he does not want this population to interfere with the Vaquero players. 

“When our young men and women use those facilities, I want them to be able to use them safely and without disruption or anything that would negatively impact their athletic experience,” Warren said.  

Warren has a plan to establish these conditions for City College athletes. 

“I want to establish a zone,” Warren said, “that for the time that we’re there, our kids are safe and undisturbed by the kinds of things that happen down there.” 

In this zone, “you can’t do anything that you can’t do on the front steps of the Administration Building,” Warren said.

City College Superintendent-President John Romo agrees with Warren’s safety-zone, stating he absolutely thinks it would be a good idea for the college.

Romo also said the problem runs deeper than the homeless people at Pershing Park. 

“It’s not only the homeless down there,” Romo said.  “There need to be rules that apply to everyone.  They (homeless) are not the only ones who cannot drink or cause problems down there.”

City College softball player Nicole Medina said that other than a few isolated incidents, the homeless at Pershing Park are not a distraction for her.

“I kinda like them,” Medina said of the homeless, who root the team on during home games. 

“They’re our No.1 fans. The only problem I had was one time a homeless man was on the bleachers pleasuring himself to our practice,” Medina said.  

The Santa Barbara Police Department constantly patrols Pershing Park, according to Santa Barbara City Mayor Marty Blum. 

“The ultimate goal is to get these people into housing,” Blum said, noting the city’s annual homeless count is down 16 percent from last year. 

Blum’s main concern about Pershing Park is the yelling at night, public urination and open containers. 

According to Blum, there is room in shelters for more people, although homeless argue they’ve had different experiences. 

According to Sandra Dean, after April 1, she had to leave Casa Esperanza, a local homeless shelter, including many others.

Dean, who is at Pershing Park on a daily basis, refused to be photographed for “fear of being stigmatized.” 

“They (Casa Esperanza) take one-third of your S.S.I. (social security income) check for rent and hold more.  I don’t know what for,” she said.

Representatives from Casa Esperanza deny the allegation. 

“We take money out of their checks for rent, that’s all we do.  We can’t keep people here if we don’t. We need to keep this place in living condition,” said Beverly Lange, a personal counseling service manager for Casa Esperanza.

Dean has received three tickets for “prowling” at Pershing Park, a new term used by Santa Barbara Police, who are no longer able to issue tickets for illegal camping or lodging. 

The citations were issued on Feb. 15, Feb. 16, and March 4-all at 8 a.m. 

Dean was unable to pay the fines and went to court for each one. 

She recalls the judge throwing each one out because the jails were too impacted. Dean believes that police are merely trying to satisfy quotas.

“I guess that’s why police come through here and wake me up at five in the morning and give me a ticket,” Dean said.   “I want to know a reason behind this.”  

“We want these people to get help,” said Sergeant Brent Mendrel of the Santa Barbara Police Department, who routinely patrols Pershing Park. 

“At the same time, students need to be safe. We work with school security to make sure that happens,” Mendrel said. 

“City College workers come around and take our blankets,” said Tasha Tait, a woman who resides in the park.  “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do.  The park closes at 10 p.m. and we have no blankets and nowhere to go.”

Security Director Erik Fricke said the college is not a place for belongings.

“If we find blankets stashed in the bushes, we throw them away,” Fricke said. “We want to make it known that they can’t leave their stuff here. It’s not a campsite.”

“Officers have a form that they give to the homeless that says where the shelters are that have space for them,” Mayor Blum said.

Several homeless people at Pershing Park maintain that they have never seen this form. 

With the number of homeless people at Pershing Park on a daily basis remaining steady, it is likely that the issue is far from over. 

For now, Vaquero sports and homeless Santa Barbarans are trying to find a way to co-exist.

-John Stark contributed to this story