Santa Barbara, CA

Opinion: Some homeless people are snowbirds

David Heitz

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We think of snowbirds as wealthy seniors who jet to warmer climes in the winter. But some snowbirds can’t even afford a bus ticket.

Indeed, people experiencing homelessness in Denver often migrate to places like Florida, California, Arizona, and Nevada when the weather gets cold. Some hop aboard freight trains, a few hitchhike, and others do save up for a bus ticket.

Sometimes people experiencing homelessness can even find an organization to buy their ticket. Denver Police offered me a bus ticket once to anywhere I wanted to go. I politely declined. I like Denver.

To some, being able to up and move south when it gets cold may feel like freedom. Some homeless people bounce between Denver and a warm spot every winter. They have decided that survival is easier without frigid temperatures.

Warm but not friendly

The Los Angeles Times wrote a story several years ago declaring Santa Barbara a sanctuary for poverty-stricken snowbirds. “A century ago, the first wealthy winter visitors to Santa Barbara flocked here from the frigid East, often arriving by steamer and staying at swank hotels such as the Potter, which offered its own racetrack, golf course and polo field,” the Times wrote. “Arthur Caldwell is a different kind of snowbird. Arriving by Greyhound bus, he found himself a bed for 10 days at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission and considered that a lucky break.”

Santa Barbara isn’t too fond of snowbirds who don’t drive Jags. The city arrested 1,300 people after the passage of a 1979 law that prevented nighttime sleeping in public spaces, the Times reported. “That law alone earned Santa Barbara the title of most hostile city in the nation for those with no place to live.”

So hostile, in fact, that “some Santa Barbara merchants began pouring bleach over their garbage to prevent the homeless from eating out of trash bins,” the Times reported.

It kind of makes you wonder if Santa Barbara’s warm weather is worth it.

Escaping the heat, too

In Arizona, people experiencing homelessness escape the sweltering heat of Phoenix for Flagstaff. They’re snowbirds of a different type.

“I like Flagstaff,” Monty McCoy told Phoenix Magazine. McCoy, who holds claims to 26 gold mines across the west, “Says he’d worked in Flagstaff for a while before bouncing south to Phoenix and then back north to Prescott Valley, following the change in seasons, and hoping for a change in fortunes,” according to Phoenix Magazine. “I like everywhere I’ve lived – until I get tired of it,” McCoy said. “Every town has something good about it, as long as people take you the way you are. But then you start running into some who don’t. I usually get tired of any place after about three to six months.”

You might think Florida has the most homeless people per capita in the U.S. given its temperate climate. It actually ranks 15th, according to Orlando Business Journal. New York is first, followed by Hawaii, California, Oregon, and Washington State.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO
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