The Santa Barbara City Council’s unanimous decision Tuesday to allocate additional funding for the county’s warming centers coincided with the release of a national report highlighting hunger and homelessness issues across 25 cities, including Santa Barbara, and examining what cities are doing for their indigent residents given the tough economy and recent plans to cut food-stamp benefits.
The council’s go-ahead, which will provide the centers with up to $15,000 between now and the end of March to pay for an overflow center to open when necessary, came at the request of the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H) and the warming centers’ director, Maria Long. After learning of Casa Esperanza’s new plan to limit its beds to sober guests — and predicting a need for alternative nighttime shelter for those who don’t adhere to that policy — C3H developed its plan for the overflow site, which will be located at the Presidio Springs community room at 721 Laguna Street. The cost to staff and operate that site when needed is estimated at more than $40,000. Long said that after the City of Santa Barbara’s contribution, the warming centers will look to the county and other cities — as well as nonprofits and private donors — to pick up the rest.
Long stated that the warming shelters — which are hosted by various churches and community centers across the county and open when it is likely to rain or when temperatures dip below 35 degrees — have, since November 15, been activated eight times, three nights of which resulted in an overflow of guests. Nearly 600 shelter beds have been used so far, Long added, and the majority of the beds used were in Santa Barbara centers.
Mike Foley, Casa Esperanza’s director, said the shelter was “extremely supportive” of the warming centers but deemed the notion that the Casa’s sobriety requirement was preventing people from using the facility as one that “does not seem to be bearing fruit.” Casa’s 200-capacity facility hasn’t maxed out yet, Foley said, but has reached higher figures this year than the same time last year, providing 182 beds compared to last year’s 164; the shelter didn’t reach 183 beds last year until December 15, he said. (Weather reports from this same time period last year showed an average low of 36 degrees, with this year’s period currently clocking in at 29 degrees.) “We’re watching and waiting,” Foley said. “We’re watching and providing the best level of care that we can.”
According to a letter to the city from the Unitarian Society, which handles the warming centers’ finances, last winter the centers provided nearly 4,200 beds across 48 nights. Those who used the centers ranged from foster youth and veterans to those with mental illness and substance-abuse issues. “There’s a lot of volunteer work involved in this and a lot of training from others who are staying up all night to make sure people are not out in the cold,” Mayor Helene Schneider said at the council meeting.
Schneider also serves as a cochair for the United States Conference of Mayors’ Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness, which released the aforementioned national-level and local-level report. She said that the survey served as a cautionary tale about the effects of federal sequestration and proposed cuts to food stamps on those already suffering. But she said that Santa Barbara — which the report praised for several of its services for the homeless, for veterans, and for those in need of food — is “striving to collaborate as much as we can to stretch the dollars that we have,” citing the work with C3H as an example.
Major findings from the report show no change in Santa Barbara’s homeless population from last year to now — more than half the other 24 cities saw an uptick — yet an increased demand for shelters. But the report also projected that requests for food assistance will increase next year at the same time that resources to provide such assistance will decrease.
Schneider said that while Congress’s actions are key, it will be important that the whole Santa Barbara region work together to address the issues facing its needy population. “I think we’re doing the right things,” she said. “We just haven’t done them for long enough to see the impact we should see.”