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[UPDATE 3/22 4:52 p.m.]: The plans for Earl Warren Showgrounds fell through as of today, but organizers continue to search for a viable location.
[UPDATE 3/21 3:47 p.m.]: Earl Warren Showgrounds will be opened up as a site where homeless people can take showers and get food next week, not Monday as originally reported. The original story follows.
The million-dollar question confronting Santa Barbara County’s growing homeless population is how to shelter in place, as California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered Thursday night, for people without any real shelter. The implications of that question were starkly highlighted in a recent report showing that the number of homeless people living outside the fractured embrace of the county’s network of shelters has grown from 1,133 last year to 1,223 as of January 29, 2020. In other words, there are 150 more people living in vehicles or on the street than a year ago the same time.
Countywide, the overall population of homeless people jumped by a relatively modest 5 percent — from 1,803 to 1,897. Far more troubling from a public health standpoint was the 45 percent increase in the numbers of people who reported being chronically homeless. These are people who because of their exposure to the elements — coupled with addiction issues and mental-health problems — are far more susceptible to infections.
These numbers were produced by what’s known as the Point in Time Count, an annual event in which 500 volunteers fan out across every census tract in the county to document the number of unsheltered individuals in the county. While this year’s results remain preliminary, last year’s count revealed that fully 36 percent of the homeless people living on the South Coast had chronic health issues. With the coronavirus now fully upon the county of Santa Barbara, these individuals are of intense concern both as potential victims and vectors of COVID-19.
Making matters more challenging, the virus has arrived just as cold winter rains have repeatedly lashed the region, creating an urgent demand on limited shelter space. Social distancing — keeping a six-foot distance between individuals — is not possible in most shelters. Many operators continue to maintain the three-foot separation that traditionally has existed between cots but now alternate the orientation of the cots so that one person’s head lines up against the next person’s feet. While this doesn’t fully achieve the six-foot separation required, it approximates it.
“The shelter-in-place model is going to really reduce our capacity,” said Rolf Greyling of the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, which runs a 200-bed facility, targeting three distinct populations. About 120 individuals take advantage of the Rescue Mission’s overnight shelter, but 70 are enrolled in its drug and alcohol recovery programs. “It’s challenging to implement recovery programs when people can’t meet,” Greyling observed.
To date, at least one homeless person was reportedly tested for COVID-19, though none have yet tested positive. County public health authorities will not confirm or refute such reports, citing confidentiality requirements regarding personal health data. This individual was reportedly put up in a private motel to keep him isolated and quarantined. He reportedly did not test positive. Had he done so, county health officials say, they would continue to keep him isolated, but declined to provide any specifics, again citing the confidentiality of personal medical information.
Governor Newsom empowered county governments to impound hotel and motel rooms in response to the public health crisis. Kimberlee Albers, of the county’s Housing and Community Development Division, said the county is currently negotiating to secure a “block” of motel rooms but declined to say how many rooms or how many motels were involved. She did say the county has been approached by some hotel owners.
Winter shelters have always provided havens for those sporting medical maladies. A handful of medical beds have long been set aside at the PATH shelter on Santa Barbara’s Eastside, but that doesn’t provide the space necessary to isolate a guest who’s tested positive for COVID-19 or presenting symptoms consistent with it. To the extent such isolation space can be created, shelter operators have reported, it can be achieved only at the expense of shelter bed space, which is currently at a premium.
Santa Barbara County health officials have convened a special task force to deal with the special challenges posed by homeless people in the time of coronavirus, and they meet twice a week to hash out plans. Plans exist to open three new emergency shelters — one in Santa Maria, one in Lompoc, and one in Santa Barbara — but the details remain sketchy. The new Santa Maria shelter — to be located at the Santa Maria High School campus — is slated to open sometime this weekend. Sites for the other two have yet to be nailed down, though the downtown Armory building, now in the possession of the Santa Barbara School District — is off the table.
Albers, who runs many county homeless programs, declined to provide a specific number for how many new bed spaces the county is hoping to open, explaining, “The situation is extremely flexible and fluid; we just know we are looking for sites where we can adjust the numbers if we need to.” As for how many people she expects at the Santa Maria High School, she explained, “We’ll have to see when they show up.”
The other big news, Albers noted, is that the Earl Warren Showgrounds will be opened up next week as a site where homeless people can take showers and get food. She added that homeless outreach workers are currently making bag lunches to pass out to those without homes. In addition, the county has installed 20 chest-high, concert-grade handwashing stations throughout the county so that homeless people can avail themselves of the same handwashing regime as everyone else.
In the past week, the social and economic ecosystems that sustain people who are homeless have been essentially eviscerated by Governor Newsom’s mandatory shelter-in-place protocols. The gyms where many homeless people — especially those living in cars — have previously showered have now been shut down.
About 120 car dwellers are currently enrolled in the Safe Parking Program run by New Beginnings, but that doesn’t count the 100 others on the waiting list. New Beginnings currently provides parking spaces in 24 parking lots scattered throughout the South Coast. Typically, these lots have made porta-potties available, but only during the night hours.
With the closure of the South Coast’s gyms; the downtown public library, which is home to about 70 homeless people a day; and the Virgil Cordano Center, home to about 30, many people have suddenly found themselves with no place to go or to shower.
City Hall has found itself increasingly under pressure to install porta-potties downtown to relieve the pressure from this pent-up demand, but to date, City Hall has not given instructions to keep its public restrooms open past traditional closing hours, roughly half an hour after sunset. Restrooms in city parks have taken a beating at the hands of some homeless individuals, reportedly creating a public nuisance for many members of the public and an occupational hazard for city employees charged with keeping the restrooms clean. Some homeless advocates have suggested this problem could be solved — at least during the duration of the pandemic — by the posting of security guards. That issue has yet to be addressed.
For Jeff Shaffer, Barbara Andersen, and Rick Sanders with S.B. ACT, a faith-based nonprofit working to get homeless people into transitional and permanent housing where they can receive necessary services, these are dark times. Shaffer recounted showing up for the last public meals program at Alameda Park on Thursday, wearing gloves and keeping a safe distance. The instantaneous evaporation of resources upon which homeless people have long relied, he said, was dramatic enough. “But the loss of the human connection, the sense of dignity,” he added, was equally damaging.
Volunteers who have worked on a number of homeless programs have likewise grown scarce, he noted. The closure of the library was “huge,” casting about 70 people a day to the wind.
Santa Barbara County has convened a task force that’s meeting twice a week. United Way and the Santa Barbara Foundation are seeking to fill the void. But for the time being, Shaffer said, there are more questions than answers.
Shaffer, who has been working with homeless people for nearly 20 years, reflected, “People on the streets are resilient. They figure things out. They have survival skills.” Such assurances aside, Shaffer found the new realities sufficiently grim that he’s changing some of his fundamental practices. “This is the very first time I’d ever say this: If you see someone, go ahead and given them money. I’d never say that before. But it’s a very different time.”