Santa Barbara Works to Tackle Homelessness

Image courtesy of Common Ground Santa Barbara County

Amanda Knight

Over 500 volunteers came together between 5 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 24 to participate in the Point-In-Time Count, a survey of people experiencing homelessness throughout Santa Barbara County.

Part of a larger national census, the information gathered in this biannual count will help local agencies and government officials address both housing and medical care needs, acquire federal funding for assistance programs, and raise awareness for the issue of homelessness.

This year’s census was sponsored by the County of Santa Barbara, Home for Good at Northern Santa Barbara County United Way, AmeriCorps California, and Common Ground of Santa Barbara County. The organizers relied heavily on volunteers to quickly and accurately administer the survey.

New volunteers were required to attend a one-hour training session offered earlier in January. Part of this training included familiarization with the Simtech application, Count Us, which was used to streamline the survey system.

In 2017, volunteers counted 1,489 people who were experiencing homelessness in Santa Barbara County. One hundred and twenty five of those people were living in Isla Vista and Goleta.

The county is expected to release this year’s results by the end of March. The information will include general demographics, the distribution between different regions of Santa Barbara County, what kind of conditions people are living in, and for how long they have been homeless.

According to Emily Allen, director of homeless and veterans impact initiatives at Northern Santa Barbara County United Way, “Until we really start seeing a much more proactive effort to bring additional supportive housing units online, I certainly don’t expect the numbers to decrease dramatically.” Based on past counts, Allen also stated it is unlikely that there will be a huge increase.

Since Santa Barbara’s Point in Time count is part of a nationwide effort mandated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, some of the questions on the survey are standardized and distributed throughout the country. Others are chosen specifically for the region.

For example, one question asks participants whether or not they are homeless because of natural disasters, such as the recent fires in Santa Barbara. This line of questioning aims to create a picture of what is going on in the community and why. Of the 24 questions on the survey, nearly a third of them address medical issues.

Based on the 2016 Community Health Needs Assessment, there is a strong correlation between poor health and a lack of adequate housing. State legislation went into effect this year, requiring hospitals to provide more effective discharge planning.

In October of 2018, Cottage Health, People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), CenCal Health, and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department launched the Recuperative Care Program (RCP) to address this need for better medical care. It started as a four-bed pilot program which gives patients a place to recover after treatment, and has now expanded to 10 beds as of January 2019.

Allen notes that although the overall numbers of people experiencing homelessness seem relatively unchanged, the rate of housing placement is up. “It is important to have the right level of services and support to prevent more people from becoming homeless,” said Allen.

In December of 2018, the Isla Vista Community Service District (IVCSD) approved a beautification project that will offer employment opportunities to people experiencing homelessness. Proposed as a month-long pilot program, it is still in the development stages, but it has the potential to be extended to a yearlong project.

The County of Santa Barbara launched another program called the Coordinated Entry Point System on Jan. 23, 2018 as part of a Housing and Development mandate. The program aims to connect people who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness with local resources and housing.

There are currently six different centers located across the county, including one in Isla Vista at 970 Embarcadero Del Mar which is open on Wednesdays and Fridays from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Staff members also conduct additional outreach outside of these hours and collect data as part of a homeless management information system.

In order to see the number of people experiencing homelessness go down, Allen stresses that “we need to really commit to developing more supportive housing.” This involves both building more housing and working with existing landlords. She suggests incentivizing landlords to rent out rooms, creating shared housing, and building more accessory units on existing properties.

The reality is that there are a range of people who experience homelessness or housing insecurity, including students, families, veterans, and victims of trauma, abuse, and discrimination. Many experience setbacks because of a lack of affordable housing, economic hardship, unemployment, chronic disabilities, medical issues, mental health needs, substance abuse, and a lack of services.

“We need to make sure that the community understands homelessness more,” said Allen, adding that building public awareness can lead to political change and long-term solutions to homelessness. Most recently, she successfully advocated for state funding for the Community Corrections Partnership in order to develop more supportive housing.

One of the simplest ways for other people to help is by donating socks (one of the least donated but most needed items) or other amenities such as toiletries, granola bars, bottled water, rain ponchos, beanies, gloves, $5 food gift cards, or bus passes.

People can also get involved by giving to or volunteering with local organizations such as United Way, organizing a donation drive on campus, signing up for action alerts, or advocating for housing solutions and health care services that will benefit people experiencing homelessness.