Cabin Living: Each of Dignity Moves’ 33 “cabins” will come equipped with a bed, a desk, and a chair, as well as lighting, electricity, and air conditioning. | Credit: Courtesy DignityMoves

In what was the best throwaway line of what otherwise was a political high-mass event held this Monday to unveil plans for a new downtown homeless housing project, Santa Barbara County Supervisor Gregg Hart quipped, “Hey, at least we have windows.”

Hart was riffing, obviously, on the infamously window-free Munger Hall dorm proposal to house 4,500 UCSB students that’s sparked a relentless and withering storm of criticism over the past two weeks. By contrast, each of the 33 proposed prefab housing units — each one 64 square feet and described by their manufacturer as “cabins” — come equipped with two-foot-by-three-foot windows on the outer door; glass windowpanes on the front door; and tiny, pillbox-slat windows that admit natural light on the interior walls. 

Monday’s event was the public coming-out party for plans — to install 33 transitional housing cabins for people experiencing homelessness into a public parking lot on the 1000 block of Santa Barbara Street now owned by the County of Santa Barbara — that have been gestating in the murmuring and whispering stages for the past four months.

On hand were a couple of county supervisors; a couple of city councilmembers; representatives from DignityMoves, the nonprofit agency that hatched these plans; a handful of homeless-housing professionals; a few concerned neighbors; and a coterie of high-ranking government officials whose job it has become to make seemingly unlikely dreams — like this DignityMoves proposal — come true.

Supervisor Das Williams, who represents the district in which the project will be, promised those in attendance this village of tiny homes would defy expectations. The new homes, he said, “were a step above what we’ve done in the past,” adding, “This is something different.” 

Not only will the proposed cabins — which will be assembled on-site beginning late this December — come equipped with windows, but they’ve been designed to conform with downtown Santa Barbara’s architectural stylistics; the roofs, for example, will have the terracotta coloring of Santa Barbara’s red-tile roofs. Each cabin comes equipped with a bed, a desk, and a chair. Each unit — with walls two-inches thick made from steel framing covered in plastic building materials — has lighting, electricity, and air conditioning. Guests will use common-area restrooms, sinks, and showering facilities. Unlike the 20 Pallet homes that provided housing to homeless people in Isla Vista from last December to June, no porta-potties will be used. A sewage hook-up was trenched to serve this community, thereby reducing smells and truck traffic from MarBorg waste haulers.

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Making this happen is Bay Area nonprofit DignityMoves, whose members include civic-minded entrepreneurs who all became CEOs of their respective ventures by the time they turned 40. Three members of this group happen to live in Santa Barbara. A press release issued for the occasion explained, “Our streets cannot be the waiting room for unhoused individuals.” The Santa Barbara Street village of tiny homes, it added, should be seen as “an interim housing step between tents and permanent housing.” 

The price tag per unassembled unit is $9,000, but with all the bells and whistles, the true cost is closer to $25,000 apiece. Using emergency federal dollars, the county supervisors allocated $500,000 to help defray the cost of “construction.” DignityMoves has raised $600,000 of the remaining $800,000. But the real cost comes in the form of “wrap-around services” such ventures require to succeed. The supervisors have allocated $1.2 million a year for the next three years to fund these services. That money comes from federal American Recovery Act dollars. 

Running this new tiny-home village will be Good Samaritan, which operates 500 shelter beds in 30 locations throughout Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Good Sam CEO Sylvia Barnard pledged to provide 24-hour security and services to DignityMoves residents. All of the people struggling with homelessness, she said, “are somebody’s something,” meaning they are someone’s daughter, son, brother, or sister. 

While most of Good Sam’s operations lie to the north of the Gaviota Tunnel, Barnard’s organization just opened a 50-bed transitional housing shelter in Isla Vista four months ago. It has yet to generate its first complaint. Visitors are not allowed, and there’s a 10 p.m. curfew for guests, chores are required, and no alcohol or drugs are allowed on premises. Residents, Barnard stressed, are referred by other agencies; no walk-ins are accepted. The whole point is to equip guests with a range of services to help them make the transition to more permanent housing. 

On hand Monday was a handful of neighbors, including David and Renee Beaver, who just moved into a fourth-floor apartment on top of an office building right next door to the proposed village. Back in the 1980s, David’s father — developer Jerry Beaver — built the building, whimsically emblazoned with a beaver-shaped weathervane on the top. “I’m a yes-in-my-backyard person,” Beaver said, “but this attitude really gets pushed to the limit when 32-plus homeless people are literally put in my backyard.” 

Beaver said he’s communicated with DignityMoves, the county, and Good Samaritan, and they’ve assured him they will not allow the project to become a magnet for all the homeless people in the neighborhood. He is, he said, apprehensive, but also open. Initially, he said, it appeared that the allowed smoking area lay directly under his bedroom. That appears to have been changed. He worries still about the impact of the village’s restroom area on the offices directly above it on the second and third floors. Changing this, he said he was told, will not be possible. 

Supervisor Williams said he’s heard from many nearby neighbors. “There’s a lot of fear,” he said. “It comes from a plausible source,” he added, “but also from a lack of experience.” 

Williams said this village marked a major foray by the county into rectifying a homeless housing crisis the supervisors declared in 2018. The number of homeless people living on the streets has increased by 34 percent since the pandemic hit; before that, he said, there was already a critical shortage of shelter space. 

Regardless, many homeless people avoid shelters like the plague. In the past two years, county decision-makers have embraced the therapeutic potential of living behind doors that can be locked. Including the DignityMoves project, Williams said, the county has created 100 new spaces for the unsheltered. But based on their own calculations, they still have 426 more to go. In this context, he said, the DignityMoves project has to work for that to happen.

DignityMoves spokesperson Jack Lorenz estimated the site will welcome its first guests sometime in February 2022. If all goes according to plan, the DignityMoves village will remain on-site and in operation for three years. At that point, the hope is to build permanent supportive housing in their place.

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