When you talk to people about the homeless, you invariably get an emotional response. There are those who sympathize with their plight, and others who see them as a blight on the community. In Isla Vista, the homeless are a particularly visible contingent who provoke strong feelings. There is an organization, however, that wants to transform a discussion of this topic from one focusing on feelings to one that highlights available information and the best ways to employ cost-effective methods to combat the problem.
Angela Antenore, director of the Central Coast Collaborative on the Homeless (C3H), said, “If we are going to solve homelessness, we need to understand who is homeless and what they need to get off the streets.” To this end, C3H, which was established more than a year ago, uses data collected from surveys, in addition to other methods, to inform policy.
C3H is composed of a group of elected officials — including Santa Barbara County Supervisor Doreen Farr and S.B. city Mayor Helene Schneider — who work with service providers, such as Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and area police departments, and interested individuals and organizations to determine the most effective ways to solve homelessness. “No one wants to see people on the street,” Antenore said.
Paying for services, such as hospitalization, or law enforcement, Antenore said, can be more costly than supplying housing. She referred to a study mentioned in the Orlando Sentinel that stated that each chronically homeless person cost Florida taxpayers $31,000, while providing these individuals housing and supportive services was estimated to be about $10,000. “It is less expensive to house people than to leave them on the street,” she said.
However, providing housing is not the only necessity. “We can’t just take someone off the street and leave them alone,” Antenore said. She said that each individual had to be evaluated for what they might need. “There are different reasons that people are homeless, so the solutions are as diverse as the situations,” she explained. For example, “If someone is living with mental illness, they need supportive services,” she said.
In order to create effective methods, policy makers and service providers need information. One of the ways C3H collects information is through a survey called the Vulnerability Index. The survey was last completed in 2013, and collecting the information required more than 600 volunteers, armed with pen and paper and training on what to say and what not to say, to go out into their communities and interview the homeless. The volunteers asked questions such as where people slept at night, the reasons they had become homeless, and what health issues they might have.
What they found was consistent with the previous survey completed in 2011. There were 1,466 people interviewed in 2013 and 1,536 in 2011. In the Isla Vista/Goleta area, there were 81 in 2013 and 144 in 2011 (there is not a breakdown of the homeless in I.V. alone). The reasons these individuals said they had become homeless involved the economy, health issues, loss of a job, or military discharge, among others.
While this survey provides important information, Antenore said it does not provide all the information needed. She said the next survey, to be conducted in 2015, will employ the latest technology. Volunteers will use digital devices and a specially designed app to conduct their interviews. “It will be a way to stay in real-time communication with data,” she explained. The app will do such things as map the exact location where the survey was conducted.
With enhanced methods of data collection, C3H and other organizations serving the homeless will have the information they need to set policy. In the end, the goal is clear. “We just want people to not be on the streets. It’s not okay,” Antenore said.