For County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, the second time proved the charm, as he persuaded his board colleagues to support a $60,000 study designed to explore the expanding face of poverty throughout Santa Barbara County. But even as Carbajal’s poverty study won unanimous approval — when it was first proposed in November, it failed to pass — the supervisors found themselves struggling to come to terms with the sudden closure of two Lompoc homeless shelters that, combined, can provide respite for up to 75 people.
Winning the day for the poverty study was a $30,000 grant from the Santa Barbara Foundation to match the $30,000 in federal funds already available. Almost as persuasive was a clearer explanation of what the study hoped to show. According to county Social Services chief Kathy Gallagher, the money would be spent not just to reiterate sobering economic data from the 2010 Census, like how the number of Santa Barbarans falling below the federal poverty level — $21,000 a year for a family of four — jumped 52 percent in the past five years. Or that 21,000 of the county’s 96,000 minors fall below the poverty level. Or that 50 percent of county residents fall below the self-sufficiency index, which for Santa Barbara equates to $65,000 for a family of four.
Instead, Gallagher explained the study would help identify the pockets of Santa Barbara’s newly poor. She noted that many people previously defined as “middle class” have exhausted their unemployment insurance, their savings, and sold what belongings they had. They now find themselves reliant upon government help. Likewise, she said, many families are about to use up what resources they have left. A study, she said, would not only identify such people but also help itemize the myriad private and public agencies offering aid. The study should show if there’s duplication of services and the most efficient ways to provide such services.
“We’re not suffering from a lack of information. We’re suffering from a lack of economic opportunity,” — COLAB’s Andy Caldwell
Speaking against the study was conservative government watchdog Andy Caldwell of COLAB (Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business). Caldwell noted that the county spent $334 million a year providing a host of services to the poor and ridiculed the proposed poverty study. “We’re not suffering from a lack of information. We’re suffering from a lack of economic opportunity,” he said. “It’s really easy to pretend to be doing something when you’re studying something.” Supervisor Steve Lavagnino — who’d opposed the first poverty-study proposal — said he hoped the results could be ready for budget deliberations, when the supervisors will be dealing with yet another multimillion-dollar deficit. For Lavagino, it certainly helped that no money from the county’s general fund was being spent. Supervisor Joni Gray — who initially expressed incredulity that county officials didn’t already know where Santa Barbara’s poverty was — all but pushed Carbajal aside to make the motion to approve the study, reversing her initial vote.
Proving far stickier to Gray and the entire board is the fate of two Lompoc homeless shelters owned, operated, and just shut down by the Lompoc Housing and Community Development Corporation, which county government had given $2 million to provide shelter and affordable housing. Gray’s law firm had provided legal advice over the years to Lompoc Housing, and her chief of staff, Susan Warnstrom, was board president until just recently. Last November, Lompoc Housing’s long-festering financial problems threatened to melt down, and supervisors held a hearing to salvage the four properties in which it had substantial investments — two affordable rental complexes and two homeless shelters. Whatever plans they hatched proved ineffective.
Last Thursday, Warnstrom notified county officials Lompoc Housing was pulling the plug on the two shelters as of this Tuesday. Efforts by other shelter operators — Casa Esperanza and Good Samaritan — were rebuffed by Lompoc Housing. Mike Foley of Casa Esperanza said he was told if he showed up at the shelters to interview residents about their needs that Lompoc Housing managers would call the police. Ultimately, he and the head of Good Samaritan did show up Monday night, but they were not allowed inside. Interviews were permitted to take place outside until it got too dark and too cold. Aside from the evident bad blood between the different shelter operators, Lompoc Housing’s management has gone underground. Director Sue Ehrlich has not returned numerous phone calls from the media and has not been in communication with county officials either.
Because of its sizable loans, the County of Santa Barbara has the option of foreclosing on one of the shelters, but without a financially secure operator, then what? In the meantime, the Good Samaritan will open an emergency “warming center” to accommodate people displaced by the shelters’ closure. Typically, warming shelters are opened only for especially inclement weather. In this case, the emergency shelter will remain open for seven days. The supervisors had initially planned to revisit Lompoc Housing’s woes in February, but some are now pushing to discuss the matter much sooner.