County Supervisor Gregg Hart | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Efforts by county and city officials to secure emergency motel rooms for people on the streets appear to bearing fruit as Laura Dubbels, the City of Santa Barbara’s homeless oversight planner, announced this week that an undisclosed motel on the South Coast has been secured with 68 rooms for homeless individuals. The motel space will be set aside for homeless people in fragile physical health who would find themselves at an elevated risk should they become infected with the COVID-19 virus. 

Dubbels made this announcement at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, stating that the deal between county emergency response planners and the motel owners was almost final. County Supervisor Gregg Hart confirmed that the deal was imminent, stating a few legal details still needed to be worked out. The issue had achieved a level of urgency as the COVID-19 crisis progressed because many people chronically without homes have many underlying medical conditions. As such, they are seen as a higher health risk should they become infected and therefore could require more intensive treatment once hospitalized. 

Initial efforts to create a temporary emergency shelter were unsuccessful for a host of reasons—no operator being key. In the meantime, the California Center for Disease Control has deemed such shelters as a concentrated health risk in their own right, leaving hotel and motel rooms as the only viable option other than letting people living in encampments to remain where they are.

The location and identity of the motel is being kept under wraps — at least for the time being. Dubbels said County Public Health workers would screen any homeless guests, that security will be provided 24/7, and that a range of social-service case workers will be on hand to provide oversight and help. Given first priority will be individuals 65 years or older with chronic health issues. After that it will be anyone with a serious health problem, and after that anyone over 65.

Governor Gavin Newsom has authorized local authorities to requisition up to 15,000 hotel rooms on an emergency basis. Ventura County has secured 270 rooms four weeks ago in four motels.

At the same meeting, Dubbels explained that eight porta-potties have been distributed in areas of Santa Barbara where people without homes are known to congregate. Councilmember Eric Friedman expressed concern about the gathering of people under the Cacique Street freeway overpass. Friedman noted that the people he saw under that bridge were not following social-distancing protocols and that the large numbers posed a burden on the surrounding neighborhood.


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