Stunned and overwhelmed by an man suffering incontinence in a grocery store, Lilli Doner says she let him walk away because she didn’t know what to do or say despite her medical background.
“Now I would say, ‘I see what’s happening, can I help you?’”
That experience was a catalyst for change.
The Santa Barbara Middle School (SBMS) Office Manager says, “If it was anyone I knew I would have just rushed in to help right away.”
So this week she has been part of an army of five hundred local volunteers seeking out the most vulnerable homeless in an effort to get some of them permanent housing.
Armed with flashlights, ID’s and census forms, Doner and three others with ties to Middle School took to back alleys and along creek beds before the crack of dawn.
Also along on the early morning search is SBMS Assistant Head of School Jim Brady, his son Crister, a former student, and Nancy Donnelly, a former parent and former Parent Association President.
Donnelly says she would typically avoid the homeless but now she wants to be part of the solution, “I want to show the homeless that Santa Barbaran’s have some compassion and would hope they could trust us to help them.”
The foursome collected data for Common Ground Santa Barbara, a coalition attempting to house one hundred of the most vulnerable homeless in Santa Barbara County over the next two years.
Common Ground is a well established New York based non-profit that began by housing Times Square homeless. Nationwide, Common Ground has is on a campaign to house 100-thousand homeless.
Santa Barbara based “Doctors without Walls” founder Dr. Mimi Doohan invited Common Ground to town because its model generates volunteerism and is cutting edge.
“One of those innovations is that you don’t need to go from street to shelter to home but you can go directly from street to home.”
Doohan, also a former Middle School parent, says one of Common Ground’s effective organizing techniques is its early morning approach. “You can’t truly understand the experience of homelessness unless you get up at four in the morning and actually see who’s sleeping outside,” says Doohan.
The vulnerability index survey can quickly identify the most desperate cases. Doctors without Wall’s lead intern Crister Brady says that’s typically the lethal combination of mental illness, substance abuse, and chronic health problems.
“This program helps the much more vulnerable first by prioritizing those most in need,” Among their many callings, Brady and his father Jim make bio-sand filters in the upper Amazon River basin of Bolivia every year to provide clean water. Brady believes the Middle School experience sets you up to tackle any problem, “It gets you thinking critical about issues and thinking critical about the world beyond Santa Barbara.”
The homeless data collected this week will help officials go back out into the shadows and find the individuals most in need of housing and social services.
Housing Authority Administrator Rob Fredericks says the average age of those dying on Santa Barbara Streets is 50. Seven have died this year so far. “With any other demographic this would be considered a public health crisis…we’re not going to gather, present and then forget the data collected, we’re going to take data and put it to work.”
Even in these difficult budget times Fredericks says it’s more cost effective to house those in serious need than to have them cycling through jails and emergency rooms. “That’s why it’s important to do this survey now to show there is a real need in our community.”
After three nights of looking behind bushes, near shopping carts and along creek-bank encampments, Nancy Donnelly says her next encounter will be different. “I’ll give them a smile or a nod, maybe have a five dollar McDonalds coupon…five dollars is not going to break me but I know it helps them,” says Donnelly.
Doner suggests doing what feels right for you. Maybe a simple “hello” or support a shelter with your time or money, “I don’t have to take on the whole homeless problem just to help one person….if everybody does a little bit maybe we can figure out a new system.”