No one could miss the hum of anticipation in the room that Sunday in late February. Hundreds of people from across generations gathered at tables that filled the giant Earl Warren Hall. Never mind that it was beautiful outside; the buzz was all about getting up at 3 a.m. the next day to begin a momentous three-day survey of the homeless. Among the all-volunteer crowd were retirees, teenagers, church members, and the formerly homeless. A similar scene was playing out in the North County.
In a time of high economic anxiety, such altruism was surprising. But there everybody was, receiving instruction on how to interview street homeless people and getting to know their teams.
It’s been nine weeks since that day, and though the excitement has dissipated, the results of all that good will are tangible. At a public briefing Monday, May 9, the results of the 1,143 surveys taken during Registry Week were announced. The briefing also launched the second phase of the campaign, when organizers will begin to find homes for the most vulnerable people surveyed — the ultimate purpose of this effort.
But the data gleaned from the surveys did not, in the end, reveal startling new facts about our homeless population. It did confirm trends that our Public Health officials had found in earlier studies: that the majority of the homeless in this county are male, middle-aged, and burdened with multiple chronic illnesses; that a majority (57 percent) have a mental illness, and 77 percent have spent time in jail in the past year. Of those surveyed, 932 were found to be at risk of premature death based on a scoring system created by Boston-based physician Jim O’Connell, MD, and tweaked by the medical director of Santa Barbara’s Health Care for the Homeless program, David Lennon. The person at the top of the list — a woman who’s been on the streets 16 years and has cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis, schizophrenia, HIV, chronic obstructive pulmonary artery disease (COPD), and is an alcoholic — has the highest vulnerability score of all.
The piece of data that is new, and that will be a source of controversy, comes from the question of where people came from and if they were homeless in that place, too. Of those being queried, 44 percent reported being from out of town, and 55.7 percent were residents here before becoming homeless. Of those who came from other places, 5 percent said it was the promise of services that drew them.
As Doctors Without Walls-Santa Barbara Street Medicine founder Mimi Doohan said recently, no matter what evolves from this campaign, no matter how many or how few receive housing in this effort, our community is forever changed. We know how to come together. We’ve done it before.
How did it coalesce, after all? What spell did organizers cast to inspire so many?
Spark to the Flame
Last July, at the annual Health Care for the Homeless (HCH) conference, Doohan and Ralph Barbosa, who runs the HCH program here, heard Becky Kanis, a former Army Special Operations communications specialist who had just launched a campaign to house 100,000 of America’s chronically homeless in three years. Kanis’s campaign was targeting 55 American cities because of their known high numbers of the chronically homeless. Santa Barbara was one of them. Doohan approached Kanis later to introduce herself and invited her to bring her campaign to Santa Barbara.
Über charismatic, smart, with the unassuming confidence of a true public servant, Kanis, a West Point grad with short, bleached blond hair, is just the person to pull off something as audacious as this 100,000 Homes effort.
In 2005, Common Ground, a New York City-based nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness, hired Kanis to lead a new project that was trying to move the homeless in New York’s Times Square into housing. Kanis began rethinking the tired assumptions about the chronically homeless and the easy acceptance of their refusals of services — including housing. She employed motivational interviewing and eliminated middle steps in order to prevent sending people to shelters where they were often required to become sober. She offered the homeless keys. In five years, 85 percent of Times Square’s homeless were housed. Many were accessing treatment. New York City officials asked Kanis to take her approach to other neighborhoods. Soon she was getting invitations from officials in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
In every community, her approach is the same: Exclude no one. Every nonprofit, faith community, government agency, and lowly volunteer that wants to join the effort is welcome. Her results are as tantalizing to city administrators guarding general funds as they are to church-goers looking to live out scripture.
Last fall, a three-part series in the Los Angeles Times on the 100,000 Homes campaign that had launched in L.A. caught the attention of Rob Pearson, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara. Intrigued, he sent the story around to his staff and a few elected officials, including Mayor Helene Schneider, indicating he hoped to incorporate these ideas in his homeless projects. Soon he discovered that Doohan and two of the smaller homeless outreach organizations — the Organic Soup Kitchen and the Uffizi Mission Project — were already mapping a strategy for bringing the campaign here.
Ultimately, Kanis was invited to Santa Barbara for a series of five visits. She talked about lessons and successes of communities like D.C., San Diego, Omaha, and dozens of others. Soon, not only Pearson but also Casa Esperanza executive director and Ten Year Plan cochair Mike Foley were brought on board. Foley’s participation was key. The pull that he and Pearson have with elected officials broke the campaign open by linking it to the county’s biennial Point-in-Time count of the homeless. This countywide count, required by the federal Housing and Urban Development department in order for a county to receive essential Continuum of Care funding, was to take place in late January anyway. Linking the two surveys meant the county would also be backing 100,000 Homes, and the scope of its data would be broader and deeper.
When Kanis addressed the important gathering of South County homeless advocates, who have been gathering at Chuck Blitz’s beach house for years, she showed a short movie describing the campaign’s three basic stages: registry week, housing, and support. They asked questions, but by the time it was over, the only query left was when it would begin.
By the first week in December 2010, the 100,000 Homes project in Santa Barbara was endorsed by every homeless agency, public and private, in the county, and that’s how Common Ground Santa Babara was born.
By Paul Wellman