In 2005, L.B. Chandler was caught in what felt like a never-ending cycle of using drugs, committing crimes that would allow him to continue using drugs, getting arrested for those crimes, and then getting released — only to go straight back into using drugs again. He was fortunate enough to receive an offer during his last incarceration that would allow him to break the cycle — a year-long stay at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission. It was either that or jail time. After graduating from the residential recovery program and receiving certification as a drug and alcohol counselor, a sober Chandler was hired on at the very organization that saved his life a year prior. Fifteen years later, the men’s program director said he is proud to announce the Rescue Mission’s much-needed remodel is finally complete.
“Finally, clients can find recovery in a setting that matches the level of care we give them,” Chandler said. The life-changing organization at 535 East Yanonali Street held its open house Thursday, allowing guests to explore the newly remodeled 40,000-square-foot facility. The five-year, $12-million remodel increased the number of beds for homeless women from 18 to 32, and, even more pivotal, it demolished the single five-shower, unisex bathroom and replaced it with gender-specific bathrooms containing 12 female showers and 14 male showers — more suitable for the needs of the over 100 homeless guests a night.
“When my kids were little and they got anxious and whiny in public, I would whisper in their ear ‘Home now,’ and they would instantly calm down because they knew we were going home soon,” District Attorney Joyce Dudley said at the opening ceremony. “Now these people can feel that same ease when they come to sleep in this lovely facility.” Dudley’s speech, among others at the ceremony, hit close to home for many in the audience of nearly 200, triggering tears. Those in the crowd donning a purple flower on their name tag, Chandler included, were past graduates of the residential program who understood Dudley’s message all too well.
Other features of the remodel include a separate ADA-approved room for 14 homeless men with disabilities, which allows guests staying in that room 30 days’ stay per month. This differs from the 10-days-per-month rule for those staying in the non-disabled beds — 88 for men and 34 for women. “We grant generous exceptions to the 10-day rule, though,” said Rebecca Webber, the Director of Communications and Constituent Relations. She explained that the 10-day limit is just meant to create a sense of urgency in guests to search for housing, but they typically always allow an extension as long as the guest is actively looking for permanent housing. The Rescue Mission is the only facility in South County that provides emergency shelter and meals for the homeless 365 days a year.
Jill Dixon, the director of the life development center for men, said she is thrilled the remodel is complete. She will be moving her program for the third and last time since the construction began into the newly remodeled classroom and office space. The life development center runs as a part of the 12-month residential treatment program, a separate effort from the homeless shelter.
Dixon currently has 27 men in her program, but now with the remodel complete, she will be able to have up to 45. She specializes in offering art therapy sessions and English literature classes. Recently, she said, she asked her clients to read a poem by Billy Collins and write letters responding to the boy in the poem. “I love challenging them to think outside the box,” Dixon said. She works in collaboration with each of the clients’ counselors, mentors, and progress trackers. They also give the clients access to 10 computers to help them create résumés, find work, and complete their educational goals. Currently, she said, there are four clients attending classes at SBCC, one attending classes at the Schott Center, and one studying for his GED.
At the Bethel House, the Rescue Mission’s sister residential program on Arrellaga Street, Carey Uhler holds Dixon’s equivalent position for clients in the life development center for women. The Bethel House program is smaller, and Uhler said she currently has seven clients, two of whom are working to complete their GEDs, while the other five are working on building resumes and looking for jobs. “I am gifted with helping people heal,” Uhler said about her position. Instead of focusing on art and English like Dixon does, she focuses on meditation and healing from trauma with her women clients. “I endured a past trauma myself, so I have a personal connection.” She holds meditation groups with the clients to help them relive positive memories, which she said helps calm the “fight-or-flight” response in victims of trauma. Her ultimate goal, she said, is to build resilience.
The Santa Barbara Rescue Mission has provided more than 3 million meals and 1.6 million stays to clients since 1986, entirely through donations. “This is a special place that provides relief from brokenness,” Chandler said about the facility. “I spent my first year here as a client and my last 14 as an employee and now client director, I couldn’t be more proud.”