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Even in the midst of the pandemic, the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission continued its 4th of July tradition of welcoming homeless guests to its Yanonali Street facility for a barbecue dinner — the all American hamburger and hot dog and plenty of sides. About 130 guests, from those in their twenties to those in the seventies and including at least 10 veterans, came to this festive event.
Guests were warmly greeted by staff and Residential Program participants in the courtyard, which was decorated with red, white, and blue balloons and streamers, while upbeat music played from speakers.
COVID safety concerns required changes this year — gone were the traditional carnival games, live music, and lots of volunteers. But the front line staff and Residential Treatment Program participants ensured guests got a warm meal, caring, human interaction from a safe distance, and raffle tickets for backpack and gift card prizes. Boxed dinners replaced the buffet line, social distancing and mask wearing (except while eating) were required, and guests ate at appropriately spaced tables in the chapel.
President Rolf Geyling shared how the Rescue Mission likes to do something special on July 4th because “while life is difficult enough any day of the year when you are homeless, on holidays especially you are reminded that you are estranged and struggling.” Also, typically the beaches, where many people who are homeless congregate, are taken over by crowds on this day and this year sitting or lying on the beach was prohibited.
Just as with the 4th of July celebration, the Rescue Mission has carried on its daily operations — both its Homeless Guest Services, which provides shelter, showers, and meals 365 nights per year, and its Men’s and Women’s Residential Treatment Programs, which are 12-month substance abuse programs.
Geyling emphasized that the Rescue Mission has been vigilant with temperature checks, mask wearing, social distancing and other protocols. Only one homeless guest has tested positive for COVID, and there has not been a single instance of spread in the six weeks since. A cleaning company does a deep clean and patrols throughout the night ensure anyone with a cough or other sign is separated out and tested.
According to Geyling, a big challenge COVID poses for the Rescue Mission is the absence of physical contact— not being able to sit close to someone and have a conversation over a meal. Holiday feasts, he added, are typically a time to make inroads in the recovery process by building relationships.
Geyling expressed gratitude for donors whose support has remained strong in COVID times and enabled the Rescue Mission to continue its work. Donors “continue to recognize that the needs that the Rescue Mission exist to serve are here more than ever, and there are probably a lot less places for people in acute circumstances to turn because of cutbacks and concerns in the agency community.” The Rescue Mission remains “committed to staying open 365 nights per year, and in the midst of COVID, it is all the more important that there be a place for people who are desperate to turn.”
After a $12 million renovation of its 40,000-square-foot facility that was completed last September, the Rescue Mission has been able to accommodate, at a safe social distance, all the homeless who have sought shelter, a warm meal, and a hot shower. In June, they had an average of 77 guests spending the night and 94 for dinner only. There were 151 unique men and 50 unique women served.
The Men’s and Women’s Residential Treatment Programs have also continued throughout COVID, complete with their academic instruction and job training components. An inability to test in the early days of COVID caused a short pause in new entrants, but as soon as testing became available, new entrants were permitted again. There are 30 men and 19 women in the programs. Regular temperature checks, social distancing, and other COVID protocols are rigorously followed in these programs as well.
Nationally only one in five people who start a treatment program complete it and only one of five who complete the program maintain recovery for five years. Currently, the Rescue Mission’s completion rate is 43 percent and 54 percent maintain recovery five years out. For more information or to make a donation, go to sbrm.org.