Joey O’Connell is many things. She is a mother of five, a survivor of domestic abuse, a former drug addict, and, as of the day I met her at the Father Virgil Cordano Center, 67 days sober. As she sits at a table talking and getting her makeup done by a friend, other members start loads of laundry, put together plates of food, converse with volunteers, or lie asleep on reclining chairs. O’Connell’s story is one of hardship and human failures, the kind that might overwhelm anyone. But it’s also one of resilience, determination, and, ultimately, the human need for compassion and support.
Earlier this year, O’Connell was moved for her safety from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara by Domestic Violence Solutions (DVS) after escaping an abusive marriage. Trying to numb the trauma of abuse, she turned to drugs. Her children were taken away and placed in foster care, and she lost her apartment. She became homeless this May and spent her nights sleeping in a friend’s car or staying at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission.
But when her children were transferred to a foster care center in Santa Maria, she became terrified that her chances of winning them back were evaporating. She has since worked, with ups and downs, to turn things around. She credits her support network, many of them other homeless individuals, and organizations like the Rescue Mission and the Virgil Cordano Center, for the progress she’s made.
“When I came here, I was such a wreck. But now I know that the people here see the difference in me,” said O’Connell.
Located in a small strip mall on Calle Real near Bishop Diego High School, the Father Virgil Cordano Center was the result of a collaboration between Sister Margaret Keaveney from the Daughters of Charity at St. Vincent and Father John Hardin from the Franciscan Friars at the Santa Barbara Mission. It is the only day center in the city of Santa Barbara.
Their vision was to provide homeless individuals with a place where they could find refuge from the uncertainty and stress of life on the street and, more importantly, a space where they could feel dignified and respected. The center has now been open for just over 10 months and provides services such as daily meals, spiritual advice, bus tokens, laundry services, access to the internet, and information about government and charity services to around 200 individuals a month.
As the city struggles to deal with a homelessness crisis brought about by low wages and high costs of living, many efforts to provide resources for the homeless have been met with intense backlash.
City Hall and homeless advocates have been cautiously exploring the idea of a drop-in day center for the homeless somewhere downtown. Thus far, however, this has been limited to a pop-up center and then only sporadically. In recent months, interest in such a day center has intensified as the City Council explored more punitive approaches — a shopping cart ordinance, for example, as well as a measure to make it easier for police to seize personal belongings left in public spaces. Councilmember Kristen Sneddon — who sits on the council’s Ordinance Committee — put the brakes on such initiatives until more time had been spent focusing on creating a day center.
Rocky Business Relations
The Virgil Cordano Center’s relationship with the surrounding community has so far been mixed. While local residents contacted by the Independent spoke in positive or neutral terms about the presence of the center, several of the businesses in the small strip mall where the center is located say it’s had a negative impact on their operations and that little has been done to address their concerns, despite numerous complaints.
Rosa Paredes, CEO of the center, said that they’ve tried to do things differently.
“We know a lot of people are skeptical about facilities like this. But we installed cameras and ask all of our members to abide by a handful of rules to make sure they’re behaving well,” said Paredes. “We had our own concerns at first. But we’ve found that, for the most part, people respect the space. It hasn’t been perfect, but we’ve tried to work with the surrounding community whenever they come to us with concerns.”
Not everyone agrees.
“I appreciate the work they’re doing over there, but I have a problem with activities that affect my business,” said Rick Dodge, owner of Dodge City, an outdoor equipment and ammo shop in the center. “We’ve had a guy pass out in front of our shop, had guys drink in the alley near our store. I have a lot of sympathy for people who have fallen on hard times. I have a brother who’s homeless. But they [the center] haven’t listened to our concerns.”
Other employees at businesses in the mall voiced similar complaints.
“They told us they’d have a security guard, but he’s rarely around,” said Tiffany Vague, an employee at Hook Line & Sinker. “Whenever we come to them with an issue, they basically just ignore us.” Paredes disputes this, saying that the center has investigated claims made by some of the businesses and failed to find evidence in support of them.
A Warmer Welcome
Others, such as Steve Hoganson from the El Patio Gardens Family Community Apartments, across the street from the center, offered a different picture.
“We had some concerns at first, but we haven’t had any notable incidents so far,” said Hoganson. “And whenever we have a problem, the center has been really responsive.”
Christina Almoney, a resident of an apartment complex in the neighborhood behind the center, said that her impression is that the center has been well-received.
“I haven’t really noticed any changes since it opened. I work at the Santa Barbara Mission, and a lot of people have come in wanting to donate to the center. So, it seems like a lot of people are happy that it’s open,” said Almoney.
‘A Friendly Place’
Paredes says that the center was originally going to be located on Yanonali Street, but the conditional-use permit requirements made the project prohibitively expensive. “There were all these unnecessary requirements that just kept adding up, until eventually we realized that it wasn’t going to be feasible.” The current location, at 4020 Calle Real, did not require such a permit, and the center was able to move in after securing a lease.
The facility is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and provides a number of material services, but Paredes said that it provides something less tangible but no less significant: a place where homeless individuals can find peace of mind and be treated with dignity and respect.
“There are a lot of misperceptions about homeless individuals,” she said. “But what we’ve found is that when we treat them with respect, they respond in kind. Volunteers come in, and over time some of their old perceptions of homeless individuals start to disappear. They develop friendships with each other. People from all walks of life come here. There’s no ‘average profile.’ But we want anyone who walks in to feel that they’re being treated with respect.”
That feeling of dignity can mean a lot. Thomas Sullivan, a regular at the center, told the Independent that the center “probably saved my life.” Sullivan, who become homeless after a leg injury caused him to lose his job, said that while the food and laundry services provided by the center were useful, he also appreciated that there was always someone he could talk with.
“They encourage you,” Sullivan said. “It’s always a friendly place. They know everybody’s name and there’s always a lot of love in here. You feel like a human being.”
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Christina Almoney’s name was misspelled as Maloney.