Critical Solar Chargers for Those Without Homes In the Pandemic

United Way and Unite to Light Donate Chargers for Distribution Throughout Santa Barbara County

DWW-SBSM volunteer Dr. John Vallee tends to a patient. | Credit: Mark Segemen for Direct Relief

While everyone’s life has been upended by COVID-19, homeless people have been hit especially hard. Many of the resources they normally rely on are gone, including places to charge their cell phones. Having a charged cell phone has taken on added importance. With COVID-19, it is critical that any homeless individual falling ill to the virus be able to reach out for help from where they are, not wander the streets in search of help.

As Doctors Without Walls — Santa Barbara Street Medicine (DWW-SBSM) Treasurer/Secretary Maggie Sanchez related, providing a charged cell phone is important not just for the health of the homeless population but for the health of the community at large, given the highly contagious nature of the virus. And now, as always, it is important that homeless people be able to get help for the whole range of acute and chronic health issues they face. 


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DWW-SBSM physicians are always on call. While DWW-SBSM has had to shutter its clinics because of COVID-19, a DWW-SBSM team, including a physician, do outreach a few days per week.

In normal times, homeless people had multiple options for charging outlets, but with COVID-19, these are largely gone. Major hangouts, including the S.B. Public Library and the Fr. Virgil Cordano Center, are closed. Many downtown shops and restaurants that homeless people would frequent have shuttered, as well.

Unite to Light, which provides solar-powered lights and solar chargers to the developing world, has been providing both products to homeless people in New Beginning’s Safe Parking Program for the past few years. About 250 chargers and 100 lights have been distributed to these program participants, including through a fundraising effort with DWW-SBSM through S.B. Gives, an annual fundraising effort by the Santa Barbara Independent and the Fund for Santa Barbara. The chargers enable people without homes to maintain effective connections to employment, medical services, and homeless services. Access to a solar-powered light assists with safety and self-care. 

With the onset of COVID, Doctors Without Walls began distributing Unite to Light solar chargers to its clients and other homeless individuals. Now distribution is being overseen by Coordinated Outreach Teams led by United Way Home for Good for S.B. County and the S.B. County Department of Behavioral Wellness, with chargers being distributed countywide by multiple team members and partner agencies. United to Light donated 200 chargers, and now United Way has funded 125 of those and provided funding for another 125.

Since the onset of COVID-19, Unite to Light has also donated solar chargers to the USC Keck School of Street Medicine, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and Boston Medical Center’s outreach program for the homeless. It is busy soliciting grants and donations to fund further distribution for homeless people impacted by COVID-19 in Santa Barbara and across the country.

For more info about Unite to Light, go to unitetolight.org. For more info about Doctors Without Walls, go to sbdww.org.


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