With the South Coast seized by bitterly cold nights and bone-drenching rains, Freedom Warming Centers have been activated at nine churches to provide emergency shelter for those without a roof to get under. Even so, the demand for such services has greatly exceeded the supply.
“It’s crazy out there,” exclaimed Sylvia Bernard, the executive director of the Good Samaritan homeless shelters who has taken over management of the Freedom Warming Center, so named in honor of a homeless man who died in his wheelchair more than 15 years ago in front of Santa Barbara’s Eastside homeless shelter.
Making things especially “crazy” is not just the ferocity of the weather, but the rapid onslaught of COVID infections and the attendant social-distancing requirements that have reduced the capacity of participating churches.
In years past, the Unitarian Society took responsibility for running this program, but the logistics of staffing these emergency shelters with volunteers — disproportionately elderly — became too much. Hence the arrival of Bernard and Good Sam, as her operation is known.
Until recently, Good Sam was strictly a North County operation, boasting 500 shelter beds in multiple locations. In the past year, though, it’s moved south, taking over a 50-bed facility in Isla Vista, and it will soon be running a 33-unit tiny home village in downtown Santa Barbara when it opens a few months hence.
Since December 9, the Freedom Warming Centers have been activated 13 times providing a degree of succor to 139 individuals. Of those, 82 were in the City of Santa Barbara. (It should be noted not all nine churches are open at the same time; usually only two are.)
For these shelters to be opened, the temperature must drop below 35 degrees and the chance of rain must exceed 50 percent.
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Bernard said the shortage remains most acute in downtown Santa Barbara, which boasts some of the highest concentrations of unhoused and unsheltered people in the county. Kimberlee Albers, homeless service coordinator for the County of Santa Barbara, estimated there are roughly half as many Freedom Warming beds — cots and floor mattresses — in Santa Barbara as usual.
The problem, Bernard added, isn’t so much the lack of bed space, but of available staffing. That, she added, is changing.
In addition, COVID tests are being administered to guests upon entry.
But in the meantime, other operations that that have traditionally provided emergency shelter have either gone dark entirely or dimmed considerably. Although the PATH shelter on Cacique Street is permitted to handle 200 clients during winter months — 100 as part of a winter emergency response — it’s only handling 73. For the second year in a row — in response to COVID — PATH is not providing any emergency winter shelter beds. But COVID is only part of the explanation.
According to PATH spokesperson Tyler Renner, PATH can no longer offer the extra 100 beds’ worth of emergency shelter, because it no longer has the bunk beds that made this possible. In addition, he said, “We used to do this work with no additional compensation, which meant we were doubling the workload, which creates a burden on staff’s ability to operate the facility and provide services.”
In the meantime, the second of the two of the downtown motels that provided emergency homeless housing almost since the beginning of the pandemic shut down in the middle of December. As of November, it had 23 guests. Likewise, the Rose Garden Inn — located in the San Roque neighborhood — is scheduled to shut its doors as a homeless motel as of January 31. Right now, it has 37 guests.
Helping to partially fill the void is the Fr. Virgil Cordano Center, located in an old strip mall by State and Highway 154. In October, the Cordano day center reported 646 unique visitors. In December, the number had jumped to 961.
To find out which of the Freedom Warming Centers are open — or if any are — call (805) 324-2372.