Editor's Note: This is the first part in a series about housing instability and homelessness in the Santa Ynez Valley.
At Sleepy Hollow Motel, a nondescript inn about halfway down Buellton’s Avenue of the Flags, Wayne Bublitz takes a drag from his cigarette and begins unfurling worn military flags tacked to the rain gutters outside his unit.
Navy. Marine. Army. POW-MIA. Stars and stripes.
The veteran leans back in a plastic lawn chair outside Room 21, a cramped 10- by 12-foot corner space that for seven years he, his wife and dog have called home.
“It’s the cheapest rent I could find around,” Bublitz said. He pays $850 a month, a sum that according to PLUS Property Management is less than half the $2,000 average rent in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Largely undocumented in state homeless surveys, long-term motel dwellers are part of a hidden population that defies a single definition by multiple local, state and federal agencies.
“It’s a challenge because there are different definitions for different purposes,” said Zahra Nahar-Moore, executive director for the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness, also known as C3H. “Depending on the purpose each definition is being used for, it is very different. It’s very complex.”
Federal HUD guidelines define homelessness as those “living in the street or other places not intended for human habitation,” said Eduardo Cabrera, a spokesperson for the HUD Pacific region. “The folks living in motels are not, for the purposes of our programs, eligible. We don’t see them as homeless.”
Despite the federal statutes, C3H counts some motel dwellers among their homeless population, especially those living there for less than a year. Because motels are considered unstable housing, the likelihood of motel-dwellers losing their homes is high, Nahar-Moore said.
The city of Buellton considers anyone not living in a permanent residence for more than 30 days a transient, said Carolyn Galloway-Cooper, the city’s finance director.
The challenge of working with multiple definitions and guidelines for homelessness leads to some confusion when documenting and compiling the data. Despite at least two motel-dwellers being cast as homeless in the biennial C3H survey, Cabrera said HUD does not include them in the data.
As a result of the mixed definitions, roughly 140 motel-dwelling families living in Buellton are not technically Buellton residents, said Dean Palius, executive director of People Helping People, a Valley-based nonprofit organization that regularly provides social services to those living on Avenue of the Flags.
People Helping People’s fastest-growing client base comes from Buellton, Palius said.
Bing Baumann, a retired veteran who was shacking up in a single room with a roommate in Santa Barbara, moved to the Sleepy Hollow Motel three years ago after seeing an advertisement in the newspaper for long-term housing.
“It seemed like a good place to die,” Baumann said.
Residents at the 19-room courtyard style motel say that despite the perception, they don’t consider themselves homeless. It’s a tight-knit community made up of U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and National Guard veterans who are drawn to Buellton not only for its safety, but also because most amenities are within walking distance.
“The V.A. [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] says if you stay in a motel long-term, that you’re homeless,” Baumann said with a touch of annoyance.
The Department of Veterans Affairs did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
Motel owners on Avenue of the Flags continue renting long-term out of necessity, said Vasant Prajapati, who purchased Sleepy Hollow Motel in 2006.
For those looking for lodging in the Santa Ynez Valley’s bucolic wine country, Sleepy Hollow Motel does not have an inviting appearance. Bicycles, barbeques and tattered lawn chairs are strewn about the parking lot median and line the porches. Clothes lines are hung in a vacant field behind the property.
“Nobody rents daily, so I have to rent weekly, monthly so I can be able to make my payment and all expenses, and so it’s barely possible I can do business,” Prajapati said.
For permitting purposes, Prajapati keeps just one of his 20 rooms vacant for daily guests, but few check in, he said.
Back at Sleepy Hollow Motel, where Bublitz is reconciled to living, his dog barks at passersby underneath the shade of his military flags waving in the breeze.
He resents being labeled as homeless, having moved his family from the Flying Flags RV Park, then to Lompoc, and then “when Lompoc got bad,” greener pastures in Buellton.
“I have a roof over my head. I’m providing for my wife,” Bublitz said.
Still, motel living isn’t Bublitz’s ideal situation. He’d prefer living in an apartment — in fact, he signed up two years ago to live at the Village Pacific development.
“I’m No. 1 on the list. We’re waiting on it,” he said. “In the meantime, we’ll stay right here where we’re at, no questions about it.”