Good News, Bad News for Homeless COVID-19 Response

Santa Maria High School Shelter Off to Rocky Start; Showers of Blessings Now Working Five Days a Week

Two people wait to take a shower provided by Showers of Blessings at Earl Warren Showgrounds | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

The good news with the County of Santa Barbara’s response to homelessness in the time of coronavirus is that the emergency shelter at Santa Maria High School housed 71 people Monday night, about twice the number from last week. In addition, Showers of Blessing ​— ​the portable shower service targeting people on the streets ​— ​opened for business this Monday five days a week on the South Coast: two days at Pershing Park and one day at the Girls Inc. near Ortega Park on the city’s Eastside.

The bad news, however, is that county homeless planners have yet to identify a likely site for an emergency homeless shelter on the South Coast, where the number of chronically homeless people has been most obvious and acute. Operational hiccups at the Santa Maria High School shelter have reportedly slowed down progress in pursuing a suitable South Coast shelter, let alone securing one.

The new Santa Maria shelter ​— ​which provides beds, showers, and charging stations for devices ​— ​encountered initial turbulence. The population of people being served is among the more rowdy and rule-resistant, while the county staff doing the actual serving, who hail from a smorgasbord of different departments, have little direct experience working with homeless people in shelter settings. Combined, these factors have made for a bumpy start.

On the South Coast, however, Ken Ralph finally got City Hall’s blessing to provide his shower services for homeless people at Pershing Park, a site he’s wanted to be in for four years. Ralph found himself temporarily without a home when two of the South Coast churches that hosted his operation withdrew their space in response to concerns over the virus.
Ralph said 14 people were waiting for him when he rolled into Pershing Park on Tuesday. By the time he left, 30 got to enjoy a hot shower coupled with a donation of clean cotton socks and clean bamboo fabric underpants from China.

Many, Ralph said, live in cars or vans and typically shower in gyms. But with the state of emergency, all gyms have been shut down, and Ralph’s portable showers fill a significant gap in services. Ralph said he screens everyone with a thermometer before they can use the showers; no one with a temperature of 100 is allowed in. To date, Ralph said, no one with such a temperature has been detected.

“The people we serve tend to be the hardest cases,” he said, “people who’ve been on the street a long time.”

He’s seeing a few new faces, refugees from Ventura, Santa Maria, and even Los Angeles. Not everyone, however, fits that mold. The first person to take a shower this week, he said, was gainfully employed but lived in his vehicle.
If and when the coronavirus hits Santa Barbara’s homeless population, Ralph expressed concern the disease could “take off like wildfire.” Not only are many people on the street vulnerable, but many don’t take the threat as seriously as the population in general. “One woman said, ‘This is no worse than what we live with on a daily basis.’” Ralph recalled. “The attitude is kind of, ‘What a bunch of wimps.’”

Ralph added that social distancing would be especially difficult for many on the street. “They don’t have anything except for social contact with each other,” he said. With the library closed, the day center shut down, and the two meal programs in the city parks shuttered, there’s not much left.
“I think the showers are an overt act saying we have not given up on them,” he said. “We’re willing to take the risk.”

In the meantime, the county’s outreach effort targeting homeless people has been distributing brown-bag lunches and solar cell phone chargers. MarBorg installed 20 handwashing stations throughout the county to provide more of an opportunity for the homeless people to engage in prophylactic hand scrubbing to prevent the virus from taking root. Those devices, Ralph noted, have been both “used and abused,” requiring three sanitizing washes a day.

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