You may never have heard of WillBridge of Santa Barbara Inc., but it provides refuge and assistance to chronically homeless and mentally ill adults. Lynelle Williams and Gale Franco-Trowbridge cofounded the faith-based nonprofit in February 2005, to provide “safe haven as an alternative to incarceration.”

The program helps people get off the streets, re-establish themselves, and live a more normal life, whether that means reconnecting them with their estranged families or filling out housing applications.

But it is not as easy as it sounds. “WillBridge recognizes that release from the bondage of homelessness and the journey of restoration is long and arduous,” said Williams in a written statement.

“Someone who was on the streets for years is used to being in survival mode,” she wrote. “They’re not used to sleeping in beds with clean sheets, taking daily showers, doing laundry. They sleep with all their clothes and shoes on sometimes. Just because you change their environment doesn’t mean you can change their mindset as quickly.”

Referrals for new clients are taken from the Restorative Policing Program, Cottage Hospital, Mental Health Outreach, and probation and parole officers.

It is rare for candidates to be turned away, Williams said, but in the event that it is the only option, WillBridge will always ensure that the person is taken to a program that can better suit his or her needs.

The program works with the City of Santa Barbara’s Restorative Policing Program to find solutions other than putting people in jail. The policing program refers to WillBridge low-risk individuals who, in most cases, have just accumulated citations for homelessness-related offenses. If the person who is referred remains in the program, the citations are usually voided.

WillBridge’s collaboration with other organizations saves taxpayer money, according to WillBridge’s research for grant applications, which concluded that approximately 20 percent of adults who are on the streets are mentally ill, or chronically homeless, or both. It costs between $45 and $100 per day to incarcerate an individual and at least $420 per day to hospitalize a person; at WillBridge, clients typically pay $750 to $875 per month, using Social Security relief, and get subsidized housing through grants the program receives.

The St. Francis Foundation has awarded WillBridge with annual grants since 2005. Debbie Cloud, executive director of the St. Francis Foundation, said WillBridge received a total of $90,000 in grants from the foundation.

Cloud said that WillBridge did not initially fit the eligibility requirements for St. Francis’s grants. However, Father Martin Brewer of Our Lady of Sorrows, who was a trustee of the endowment managed by the St. Francis Foundation, heard about the program, did research, and ultimately decided that WillBridge was a worthy cause. The St. Francis Foundation traditionally offers funds for health care, senior services, and end of life care, and is the primary funder of the Parish Nursing Community Outreach Program, operated by Cottage Health System, said Cloud.

WillBridge’s Montecito Street Safe Haven is the primary transitional home, where residents are monitored 24 hours a day. A Sola Street location houses graduates who live in private rooms and have case management. From the Sola Street home, WillBridge helps residents apply for and find their own apartments.

The Montecito Safe Haven currently houses six women and seven men and has three beds designated for medical care. According to Williams, the typical length of stay is 10 months to a year and a half. Clients are not forced to leave if they are unprepared to do so. The shortest amount of time a resident stayed in the house before re-establishing themselves in society is three months.

In July 2008, WillBridge added a Peer Street Outreach Team. Its members approach any person who is homeless and lacks access to services. These people can make requests for items or medical care and the street team will work to fill these requests. WillBridge asks the community to help them locate homeless people so that their needs can be heard and fulfilled.

WillBridge has seen approximately 133 residents since its inception. The program is currently in the process of tracking progress and reconnecting with those who have completed the program. Updates on current and past clients are posted in the monthly newsletter, House of Miracles.

What sets WillBridge apart from similar outreach and housing programs in the area? “WillBridge is about hope and taking those who everyone else has given up on, and giving them an extra chance,” says Williams. “We don’t give up. There are miracles happening all over this place.”


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