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Willbridge co-founder Lynelle Williams (July 20, 2012)

Paul Wellman

Willbridge co-founder Lynelle Williams (July 20, 2012)


No Cause for Alarm at State Street Suites

Controversial Housing Project Celebrates First Year in Operation


When word leaked out last February that a transitional housing project for the mentally ill was slated to open just spitting distance from the Peabody School in San Roque, the neighborhood erupted in angry surprise, prompting the City Council to hold a special hearing on the matter. But as of this July 1, that housing project — dubbed State Street Suites — has been doing business for one full year, and by all accounts, there have been no problems and many successes.

To date, 11 people have occupied the eight snug studio apartments at the site of a former residential motel located at 2904 State Street. All of have some form of mental illness; three have experienced serious addiction issues. Five of those 11 are still there — paying anywhere from $74 to $475 a month in rent, no more than 30 percent of their monthly income — three have found permanent housing of their own, and only one has been asked to leave because of noncompliance.

State Street Suites was opened by WillBridge House to provide a transitional space for people once homeless and mentally ill who’ve been making strides toward self-sufficiency. All residents at State Street Suites, for example, are working or attending school. The four students have grade point averages ranging from 3.28 to 4.0. All have been clean and sober at least two years.

One 73-year-old woman had been living in her car for seven years. About five had been living on the streets. One was referred from the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter. All but one are women. They range in age from 28 to 73. Five were born in Santa Barbara, one in Los Angeles, one in Oxnard. Residents hold regular meetings to discuss management issues, hold book groups, and plan various celebrations. To date, police said there’s been no issues with the neighborhood.

The initial freakout stemmed mostly from lack of advance notice. Neighbors and Peabody officials discovered only late last January that the City Council was going to approve allocating $1.5 million to the Santa Barbara Housing Authority to purchase the building, which in turn would be developed and run by WillBridge of Santa Barbara, a small, almost below-the-radar nonprofit that helps mentally ill homeless people get back on their feet.

In this scenario, no notice was legally required. But in the absence of information, many residents and school parents assumed the worst, conjuring vivid images of a mini Casa Esperanza with deranged drunks prowling the perimeter of Peabody elementary. Responding to the deluge of phone calls and emails, Councilmember Randy Rowse — then still a newcomer — asked for and received a special hearing.

The council chambers were packed, mostly by people with horror stories to recount about their encounters with Santa Barbara’s unwashed and unhoused. The Housing Authority and WillBridge were directed to meet twice with Peabody parents and surrounding residents. Those meetings went a long way toward assuaging such concerns. Neither organization is known for haphazard management. Today, Randy Rowse says he hasn’t heard any complaints. “If there was a problem, I’d have heard about it,” he said. Sergeant Riley Harwood, spokesperson for the Santa Barbara Police Department, said the same. Calls and emails to Peabody have not been returned.

Lynelle Williams, executive director of WillBridge, said there haven’t been any problems between State Street Suites and Peabody. “Not one,” she said. “Regardless of a person’s struggle, there’s still hope,” said Williams. “We’re seeing people succeed, going back to school, enhancing their careers, reuniting with their families, and moving into their own homes. For me, that’s very gratifying.”

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