On the night of January 26th, volunteers and officials in cities all over the United States fanned out to count the number of homeless people living on the street or in shelters, vehicles, or encampments. This survey, along with an annual count of just those housed in shelters, is mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a way to provide a snapshot of the U.S.’s homeless population. In California, which accounts for one-fifth of the country’s total homeless population and almost half of those who are unsheltered, the number of homeless people grew by nearly 2,500 between 2015 and 2016. But in contrast to the rest of the state stands Santa Barbara, a coastal city of 90,000. The 2017 count revealed that at least 790 homeless people reside in Santa Barbara, down from 1,040 in 2011, making the city proper the only part of Santa Barbara County to experience a drop in the number of homeless individuals each year.
“Santa Barbara must be doing something right,” Chuck Flacks, the executive director of Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H), said on Wednesday at a Santa Barbara City Council meeting to discuss the 2017 report on the state of homelessness in the county.
The city of Santa Barbara granted some $1.2 million to organizations and non-profits that provide shelter, supportive services, rental subsidies, and other resources for homeless populations for the fiscal year 2017; C3H works to coordinate the efforts of these homeless service providers with each other and government agencies; that integration of services has been, and will continue to be, critical for solving homelessness in Santa Barbara and elsewhere.
“Truthfully, we know how to end homelessness,” Flacks said. “It’s not an unsolvable problem of enormous cost. It’s really about getting to know each of the people on the street, getting to know their needs, getting them into housing, and getting them the services they need to keep them housed.”
Together, Santa Barbara’s service providers—including PATH, Transition Home, and Safe Parking—have managed to get an average of 150 homeless people a year into housing, according to Flacks. But the work doesn’t end there; keeping people in housing can be a struggle.
Take “Jack,” a case study presented by Luke Barrett, a regional coordinator at C3H. Jack was a chronically homeless person in Santa Barbara who finally was given an apartment housing unit. But soon after moving in he began making regular appearances at the local hospital’s emergency room, always with a new serious injury. As it turns out, Jack had suffered a stroke shortly after moving in to his new home, and would often fall while trying to go up or down the stairs. But Jack was too afraid of losing his housing to complain about the stairs, and so it took a team of people from the hospital, outreach organizations, and the housing authority to figure out what was causing his injuries. “Within a month he had a ground floor unit, he had a ton of support in home, he hasn’t been in the hospital since,” Barrett said. “It took one meeting, getting all the right people in the room, understanding it was a problem and we all have a part of the puzzle.”
More resources for housing and outreach would go a long way toward whittling down the remaining homeless population in Santa Barbara. Of course, not everyone agrees; some believe that that the abundance of homeless services in town actually draws more homeless people to Santa Barbara, many of whom wind up on the east side of the city, where the non-profit organization PATH provides services to the city’s homeless, including a winter shelter. And this winter in Santa Barbara was particularly rough for the region, with the city experiencing record-setting rainfall.
“The winter shelter brought us hundreds of new homeless people that we have never seen before. They were more aggressive, more mental-health issues, they created more problems,” said Bea Molina, president of the Milpas Community Association, a group of residents and business owners on Santa Barbara’s east side. “We want that shelter gone.”
Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss speculates that the food services provided twice a week in two of the city’s dozens of parks might also be drawing more homeless people to town, at worst, and at best is only enabling the homeless population to remain in their current station, rather than helping them to get back on their feet.
There’s little data to back that up, however. “We’re not seeing a huge influx of new people,” Flacks said. According to C3H, Santa Barbara’s services aren’t attracting more homeless people to the city so much as dictating where the city’s homeless population congregates. Roughly half of the homeless people living in the city are from Santa Barbara, according to Barrett. “The majority of people who are homeless here are either from here or have been here for a really long time,” he said.
“Homeless people are more like a canary in a coal mine,” Flacks said. “The homeless population tends to reflect some of the things that are broken in a system … mental health, alcohol and drug problems, and lack of housing, those are three systems in our county that are broken, and so to the extent that we can work together to address those issues that’s when you’ll see the improvement.”