Last week’s long steady rains — 2.26 inches fell over five days in downtown Santa Barbara — chased many homeless people into the great indoors and prompted Maria Long, who runs the equivalent of an intermittent, pop-up emergency shelter, to activate what’s come to be known as the Freedom Warming Centers. Long said 553 homeless people took refuge in a handful of South Coast churches that opened their doors on seven nights since November 15. The first night, November 16, Long reported, 79 people showed up at the First Methodist Church. By contrast, she said, only 20 showed up the first night the previous year, which was considerably colder but also dryer. Last week, the numbers hovered between 85 and 90. “I’m sad to say we were so successful,” she commented.
The warming centers were established four years ago as an emergency response to bad weather and overcrowded shelters. The Casa Esperanza shelter just off Milpas Street opened for maximum occupancy December 1, which took some of the pressure off the warming centers. The night Casa opened, the centers reported 86 guests; the next night, it was 57. Casa director Mike Foley reported about 160 people at the shelter on opening night. He can accommodate up to 200. No one, he said, was turned away.
Long and her colleagues — a mix of volunteers and paid staff — took detailed notes on their visitors. Of the 553, Long said 117 reported this was their first visit to the warming shelter. Most, she reported, were Caucasian males. Only 96 were women, and only 58 were Hispanic. Nearly 200 had some form of mental illness, and 113 were veterans. Doctors Without Walls managed to tend to 26. Various church congregations donated their collections; some brought food; the Salvation Army brought hygiene kits and toiletries as well as breakfast. (The Salvation Army is now practicing a form of art-based outreach in city parks to establish rapport and trust with otherwise service-resistant individuals. To that end, it sought homeless volunteers to paint the army’s signature red Christmas donation kettles something different. Of Santa Barbara’s 16 collection kettles, eight got painted.)
It takes 48 hours, she said, to “activate” a center and get the word out among the homeless, and to that end, she consults five weather sources a day.
Despite the duration of the rains, this year’s warming center openings seemed to go smoothly. Long said the shelters opened when there was a 50-50 chance of rain or if temperatures were predicted to drop below 35. It takes 48 hours, she said, to “activate” a center and get the word out among the homeless, and to that end, she consults five weather sources a day. No one was turned away; none were asked to leave because of disruptive behavior.
Where homelessness is concerned, Santa Barbarans have long found themselves torn between compassion and impatience. That’s especially the case along the southern leg of Milpas Street, where the Casa Esperanza operations have triggered an ongoing controversy between shelter supporters and some of the neighborhood residents and business owners. A forum established by City Hall to resolve these disputes, the Milpas Action Task Force, has proved to be such a dysfunctional food fight that city administrators hired a professional mediator — former planning commissioner John Jostes — to quell the rancor and establish working order.
Jostes presided over his first meeting last week, and by many accounts, all parties were on good behavior. At the meeting’s end, Casa donated $900 — money raised by boardmembers, staff, and supporters — to an effort engineered by the Milpas Community Association to host a Christmas-light ceremony on Milpas Street, which successfully took place Tuesday night. In addition, City Councilmember Cathy Murillo — City Hall’s liaison to the task force — has begun volunteering once a month on orchestrated walks by shelter boardmembers to reach out to the area’s businesses to determine what problems, if any, they’ve been having because of panhandling, public intoxication, or other issues associated with street people.
Murillo, who has sought to be supportive of the shelter while acknowledging its neighborhood impacts, said the results have been generally encouraging with most businesses reporting that conditions have improved. But, she said, her limited efforts to rectify problems have proved more challenging than anticipated. In response to complaints about one RV regularly parked near the shelter, Murillo approached the owner. Murillo explained the owner’s behavior was causing bad blood for the shelter, but the owner, she reported, said she didn’t care. The shelter, the owner said, had kicked her out. Murillo said she has since heard unconfirmed allegations about criminal behavior associated with the RV. When she mentioned this to the police, she said she was told, “Welcome to our world.”