It is around 2:30 p.m. on an atypically chilly Thursday afternoon in mid December, and where the Fairview Shopping Center parking lot exits onto Calle Real, a woman stands holding a cardboard sign. Artfully written in block letters and Christmas colors, the sign reads: “MISSING SANTA.”
The author of this cleverly original signage – presumably written to encourage donations of any kind – stands about 5’2” and is wearing white low-top sneakers, faded blue jeans, a red sweater, and a navy blue hat that says “Alaska.” As she stands on the curb of a concrete divider, amidst the carloads of holiday shoppers streaming in and out of the shopping center, her tanned and weathered complexion projects an air of unapproachability. However, her pensive posture belies her rugged appearance and she turns out to be quite affable. The woman’s name is Debra, and she has some thought-provoking things to say about being homeless.
Walking up to the sign-wielding woman’s precarious perch, my mind invariably begins to formulate myriad assumptions about her. She’s quite wary of my intentions, but after a brief introduction, she says she’ll allow a few questions about what it is like to be homeless in Santa Barbara. Unwilling to disclose her surname, she says she goes by Debra and that she is 50 years old. Debra and her boyfriend of eight years, Joe, have been living in Santa Barbara for the last three months, arriving here as a result of a job search that began in New Mexico.
“Me and my boyfriend left Las Cruces, New Mexico, ’cause we worked ourselves out of a job,” she explained with a nervous but endearing laugh. “We got tired of the desert and we thought we’d come to California. We hit San Diego, we worked all the way up the coast trying to find work, and he’s in construction and he just can’t find anything.” They seem to be living contradictions to the opinion espoused by some that the homeless are homeless by choice and should go get a job.
Debra, now visibly more comfortable, further elaborates on her boyfriend’s numerous qualifications and skills.
“He’s a jack of all trades,” she said. “He does plumbing, drywall, paint – you name it – and I do construction clean up.” Their inability to find work is due to the floundering American economy and the utilization of more cost-efficient immigrant labor by general contractors. She refuses to expound upon the immigrant labor issue for fear of being misrepresented as a bigot, which she ardently claims not to be. Hence she turns back to that fruitless job search up the California coastline, which resulted in spending the holiday season in Santa Barbara without a warm place to sleep.
“We’re homeless,” said Debra unabashedly. “A few years back, we were too.” Turning to her family hasn’t been much of an option – they’re all either dead or in their “own world,” filled with “big fancy cars or big fancy houses : They’re just into themselves.”
Debra said that she was going to be able to live with her older sister, but due to her nephew’s arrest for selling crack cocaine, her sister made the decision to take care of her five grandchildren by herself rather than let them enter the foster care system. “She told me, ‘I don’t have no room for you,'” said Debra. “Of course, I can understand that : They’ve got their own problems too. I could see that she didn’t want her grandkids going to the state. That’s how it goes.”
During her time in Santa Barbara, Debra said that people have been more than generous. Sometimes people drive by without acknowledging her presence, but most people are nice. “We’ve met a lot of good people here,” she said. “They’ve thrown out $20.” Even if they don’t give money, people tend to be friendly here. “The only rude thing a person said to me today was that there’s no Santa Claus,” said Debra. And then there was the contractor who had previously lived in his truck for nine months before getting a big job. He couldn’t offer them work – “He had to worry about his crew, because they have families too,” said Debra – but he did give Joe $100.
That kindness aside, Debra doesn’t enjoy receiving handouts, including the sort she’s seeking as we speak. “I really don’t like doing this,” she said while panhandling, with a degree of defiance and pride in her voice. “I really prefer to be working : It’s just, there’s no work. We even tried that Labor Ready [a per diem temp company], and it’s real slow.” Although manifesting a slight disdain for those homeless who don’t care to find work and live off the government, Debra is also cognizant that finding work is inherently hard for such a population. “It’s not that easy,” she said, “especially when you don’t have an address.”
Some have wondered why there’s no construction boom in the Tea Fire’s wake, but Debra understands the situation well. “These people have got to wait for their insurance money, and nobody’s rebuilding,” she said. “They’re thinking about bringing in mobile homes, and right now you can imagine how they’re feeling. You know, they lost everything too, it all burned to the ground.”
While Debra’s empathy is refreshing, it still won’t buy her a meal or a decent place to sleep. “What the hardest problem is, is trying to find a place to sleep – unless you want to stay up all night and sleep all day, but my clock doesn’t work that way,” she explained. “You can’t sleep on the beach. You can’t sleep in the park – you don’t wanna sleep in the park ’cause they turn the sprinklers on you.” She said that they’ve looked at paying rent, but realized it’s too expensive. In Long Beach, Debra and Joe slept in a church, but she won’t say where they’ve been sleeping here. She has not, however, sought shelter at the Rescue Mission, even though it’s been quite cold recently.
Despite her current run of bad luck, Debra remains eternally optimistic. “It will all work out,” she said, explaining that her faith in God – and Santa, she joked – fuel her hope.
Speaking of Santa, the Christmas season is especially a hard time for the homeless, said Debra, who misses having the “big fancy turkey.” But it’s also the time when she realizes that “some people have still got the spirit,” evidenced by the blue tin of Danish cookies she’s holding. People do tend to give more during the holidays, Debra explained, but then come January, they get tight again. She blames credit card bills.
Regardless of the time of year, Debra explained, “It’s usually everyday people that’s been in our shoes that try and help ya out. They do it because they are good people.” As for the folks who don’t help, Debra said, “They think, ‘This ain’t gonna happen to us.’ But, ya know, it just might.”
As we wrap up our interview I thank Debra and ask if I can snap a quick picture. To my surprise, she declines and says she isn’t comfortable with the way she looks. I realize my folly in assuming she doesn’t care if other people see her in her current state, and I’m reminded of something Debra had said earlier that I had dismissed as a platitude: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Roozbeh Kaboli is an Independent intern.