Deborah Barnes figured all she had to do was open the doors to her new digs for the elderly homeless and she’d be swamped. After all, the most recent homeless count indicates 280 people ages 55-80 are living on the streets and 93 eking out an existence in South Coast shelters. Barnes — who runs the nonprofit Worth Street Reach — opened a 12-bed facility in Goleta this November, and five months later she has only three residents with another four reportedly on the way. “It’s taking longer than we expected,” she said. Because of this, Barnes is already $18,000 behind on the rent she owes her landlord and is now launching a GoFundMe.com fundraising drive.
Barnes said she’s been alarmed at the growing number of older people in acute financial distress. “We’re not talking about alcoholics, drugs addicts, or the mentally ill,” she said. “We’re talking about people who’ve worked their whole lives and got foreclosed on in the Recession.” The good news, she said, is that rent is cheap — $550 a month — and that covers meals and utilities. For prospective residents, the daunting news is they will have to share a room. “For a lot of people that’s a shock,” Barnes acknowledged.
Barnes said she struggled to find a landlord willing to rent to her for such a purpose. When she asked landlord Dario Pini — well known for his legal battles over habitability issues — he responded energetically, showing her and her board five properties in one day. They took the first one, a one-story home with six bedrooms and four baths. Pini jackhammered the backyard patio to create garden space, where City College students have planted an organic vegetable garden to supply 30 percent of the residents’ produce. Residents are expected to help out with the gardening and also spend one day a week volunteering for organizations like Unity Shoppe, the animal shelter, and Bici Centro, or reading to shut-ins. Though Barnes acknowledged this might not be for everyone, she said she’s trying to address the demands generated by the so-called Silver Tsunami. “And it beats sleeping on the floor of the Rescue Mission chapel,” she said.