About 35 people clustered Tuesday evening around the entrance to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse to remember those homeless who died in the past year. In the face of a wind strong enough to rattle the palm trees nearby, a couple of area ministers active in homeless affairs took turns intoning the names of nine people claimed by the streets. For each name, another minister lit a candle. Three more names were called out by people in the crowd. After each name, those congregating responded, “We remember.”
It was a somber ceremonial event; Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider said a few words, as did City Councilmember Cathy Murillo. Alice Gleghorn, head of Santa Barbara County’s Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services, was present, as well.
Much on the minds of those there — not to mention many government officials — is finding a suitable daytime shelter for hundreds of homeless people who will otherwise be very wet and cold if the much-anticipated El Niño storms deliver as predicted. Santa Barbara’s downtown armory has been seized upon as a promising location, but efforts to communicate with California’s Military Department — responsible for National Guard armories — have proved difficult. After multiple attempts by homeless service providers and other government agencies went nowhere, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson’s office jumped in.
And late Tuesday, the county’s chief executive office announced it would take the lead. Representatives of that office held a conference call Wednesday with counterparts from the state’s Office of Emergency Services and Military Department. Chuck Flacks of the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H) estimated there are roughly half as many shelter beds on the South Coast as there are homeless people. Most of those shelters require their guests to leave early in the morning.
Should heavy rains come, there will be hundreds of homeless people without an obvious shelter from the storms. Even the armory, Flacks suggested, may not be big enough. After 109 homeless died between 2009 and 2011, many from exposure, local government agencies joined forces with the Unitarian Society to create a semi-improvisational network of warming centers in area churches, activated when it gets cold and wet. Six churches are participating on the South Coast, providing makeshift bed space for 390 people. Typically, the warming centers rotate rather than operate simultaneously.
Warming center organizers have indicated a willingness and staffing capacity to provide daytime services, as well. Santa Barbara’s largest shelter, Path Santa Barbara, has a permitted capacity of 200 beds but has potential to expand somewhat beyond 230. To accommodate daytime numbers of any magnitude, Path Santa Barbara would need to expand staffing, and that would require funding. Should an official emergency be declared in response to El Niño, the Red Cross would activate its own network of shelters.