Smack in the middle of Isla Vista, sandwiched between sorority houses, dorms and student co-ops, the Pescadero Lofts stands out as one of the newest buildings in the area. From the outside, you’d have no idea the lofts house 35 formerly homeless I.V. residents.
By the end of 2014, the lofts were coming together under a perfect storm of coincidences and good luck. The land the lofts were built on was bought by Union Bank a few years ago from a redevelopment agency, shortly after that agency dissolved. Redevelopment agencies were government groups that would buy up land in urban areas to better serve the community in some way.
The bank partnered with the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Barbara, letting the county use the land, and getting a tax benefit at the same time. The redevelopment agency had bought the property from the Housing Authority on the condition it would be used to house the homeless. Though the agency was gone, the conditions for the land remained.
What used to be a fraternity house was flattened, with a state-of-the-art facility built right on top the old foundation. A home investment partnership provided the funding, a combination of federal and local tax credits for reinvestment projects. The Pescadero Lofts ended up costing just over $10 million; enough to build 26 rooms, over 30 parking spaces, a locked bike storage facility, and even a computer lab.
Dr. Jennifer Ferraez is the live-in resident manager, as well as the case manager for many of the loft’s residents. One of the two employees on site, Ferraez says the longer someone is homeless, the harder it is to bring them back into “regular” society. “The longer folks are out there, the more trauma they suffer,” she says. “They’re just so vulnerable on the streets.” One resident had been homeless for 36 years before moving in.
Every year, the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H) counts the homeless population in Isla Vista. In 2011, there were 32 people living on the streets. Just two years after the lofts opened, that number has dropped down to 19.
Father Jon-Stephen Hedges works on-site with the residents, helping them with everything from finding the right support services to teaching new residents how to use the microwave and shower handle. “What if we were able to provide that one piece that was missing from that human being…which is shelter?” Hedges asked. “When people first opened their doors, some of them cried.”
Chronic homelessness is a serious issue in the Santa Barbara area, and the lofts are credited with helping to reduce the homeless population in Isla Vista by 44 percent. In addition to giving residents a much-needed roof over their heads, Pescadero staff gives the formerly homeless access to health and practical services.
Doctors Without Walls, a branch of Santa Barbara Street Medicine, comes in once a week to provide basic health care services. Weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are held on-site for residents, as well as members of the surrounding community. They’ve even had cooking-on-a-budget classes. If Ferraez feels like there is something the loft residents are missing, she can reach out into the community to find a solution.
UCSB computer classes send volunteers to help in the lofts’ computer lab to get the residents up and running in the digital world. The new skills give them access to basic things that most people take for granted; a bank account, setting up a mailing address, even setting up a Facebook profile to find family members. “So much is done online,” said John Polanskey, director of development at the Housing Authority. “Just having an email is expected.”
Tony Ogozalek, one of 9 veterans living at the lofts, has been there since it opened. “I’d lived under every bush and rock before getting here,” he said. “It was just a great experience to move in.” After serving in Vietnam, Ogozalek came home to an inflated market in already expensive Santa Barbara. After working as a firefighter for two years, an injury forced him to retire. His biggest struggle would be with lymphoma, a major factor in his ending up on the streets. But he’s found somewhere he belongs at the lofts. “I just look at this as home.”
Community members could “adopt” a room to outfit with furniture, cooking equipment, and basic housing supplies for new residents. UCSB’s Pi Beta Phi sorority adopted a few and sent volunteers to assist the lofts. Banks, churches, and many local residents joined in the effort to get residents on their feet.
The Pescadero Lofts use a “housing-first” model, the only of its kind in Santa Barbara. This means potential residents only need an identification card and birth certificate to qualify, something groups like the Housing Authority help them obtain. This is wildly different from most homeless centers, where residents are required to jump through various hoops before being invited in.
“The elderly, people who are sick or mentally ill, have substance abuse problems…something really out of their control,” said Luke Barrett of C3H. “They took these people right off the street and let them live there.”
For example, drug addicts must be treated before being allowed into most programs. But housing-first models like the lofts give them a place to live first, then worries about how to help the potential addict get clean.
It’s a long-standing debate in social work with the homeless, but the lofts’ staff fully supports such programs. As Barrett said, “If you can just take them and bring them in, then you can bring in the support around them.”