Some Good and Some Bad for Santa Barbara Homeless Issues

Remembering Father Hedges, Turning Hope into Housing, And Facing the Hiccups

Father Jon-Stephen Hedges | Credit: Courtesy

Father Jon-Stephen Hedges died a year ago, but one might have thought it was just yesterday based on all the eulogizing taking place inside the County Supervisors’ chambers this Tuesday. For 50 years, Hedges tended to Isla Vista’s broken and beaten as a man of the cloth, a mental-health professional, an elected official, and jail chaplain. Since his death last February at age 73 from liver failure, Hedges has been described as “a fixture” — in the Isla Vista community, that is — so many times he could be confused for an appliance. But all the testimonials — from his son, his wife, a fellow priest, a fellow chaplain, and others seeking to pave a path off the streets for those living there — converged on one point: hope.

ER doctor Jason Prystowsky recalled walking the railroad tracks with Hedges, looking for homeless people to help. Prystowsky came equipped with his stethoscope, he said; Hedges, with his sheriff’s badge, his clergy collar, “and a truly ugly satchel over his shoulder filled with mysterious ‘supplies.’” When their challenges became overwhelming, Prystowsky recalled, Hedges would let loose with an “Oh mercy” that would fill the sky with his deep baritone. This invariably was followed, he said, by a philosophical rant on the moral responsibility and imperative of hope. 

The real agenda of the day was to bestow Hedges’s name on a former two-story UCSB sorority house turned oil workers’ barracks located on El Colegio Road in Isla Vista that was just transformed into transitional housing for up to 50 chronically unhoused individuals last summer. It would be called, the supervisors agreed, the “Hedges House of Hope.” The name makes factual sense; Hedges helped trigger a sequence of highly improbable — but brilliantly improvised — events that ultimately led to its creation last May. 

Two years ago, Hedges came out in support of a then-controversial plan to install 20 tiny homes for homeless people in Isla Vista. Those tiny homes were critical to efforts to clear Isla Vista’s parks of the densely packed tent cities that sprang up in the wake of COVID. Initially, Hedges had serious doubts. But they were allayed upon meeting Sylvia Barnard, head of Good Samaritan, Santa Maria’s sprawling shelter operation, which would manage the tiny-home village. 

Before the tiny homes exceeded their six-month operational deadline, county real property workers managed to snag the El Colegio property. Later, as state and federal homeless emergency funds poured into Santa Barbara, they put up $7 million to help buy it. Good Samaritan would manage that too. And some of the tiny-home tenants would move in as well. One who spoke Tuesday now works there. 

Helping make this all happen was Supervisor Joan Hartmann, now board chair, and her assistant Gina Fischer. Not coincidentally, they also helped make the naming ceremony happen. It was all part of an agenda packed with hopeful news about homelessness in Santa Barbara, so seemingly intractable. In addition to the Hedges House of Hope, the supervisors heard how 33 high-end tiny homes will be installed on a county-owned parking lot on the 1000 block of Santa Barbara Street in downtown Santa Barbara. The project is running a couple of months behind schedule but is slated for opening April 11. Good Samaritan will be providing oversight and services there, as well. 

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The supervisors took the opportunity to respond to an uncommonly glowing report by the Grand Jury that extolled the enterprise exhibited by county bureaucrats in securing hotel and motel rooms for homeless people using state and federal funds from Operations Home Key and Room Key funds. Supervisor Gregg Hart said the trauma and the tragedy of so many people living on the streets “makes us flinch when we walk by,” adding, “It’s a natural reaction, but it’s not helping the problem.” Hart said the combined efforts of so many local government agencies and nonprofit providers have helped get 700 people off the street for each of the past two years. Unfortunately, he said, the problem keeps growing. 

Supervisor Das Williams and Steve Lavagnino stressed how important it was for projects like the Hedges House of Hope and the Dignity Moves development on Santa Barbara Street to shine. As Williams put it, homelessness is one of the few issues where any solution is “always more unpopular than the problem.” No matter what is proposed, he said, the answer is the same: “This isn’t the right place.”

And there have been real problems. The city’s experiment converting the Rose Garden Inn on State Street in San Roque as a refuge for people intentionally dislodged from their urban encampments has been, at best, a mixed blessing. Of the 63 people housed there, in the past six months, 11 secured housing elsewhere. When the project came to a close at the end of January, 27 hotel guests found themselves back out on the streets. Last week, the supervisors heard an angry earful from Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino and councilmember Etta Waterfield, who all but told the supervisors to take their $3.5 million grant — to help the Santa Barbara County Housing Authority buy a 75-room Motel 6 and convert it into permanent housing for the elderly, frail, and youth transitioning out of foster care — and shove it. 

Patino cited another Housing Authority project that’s been the site of gun violence and escalating gang activity. Ten months ago, she said the Housing Authority pledged to fix things; the problem, she said, has only gotten worse. “I don’t want to wait for someone to get shot,” she exclaimed. “What do I say? ‘I’m sorry?’” Patino supported that other project when it first went to the Santa Maria council for approval. “I feel like I was lied to and then in turn I lied to residents,” she said.

Supervisors expressed surprise bordering on shock at Patino’s statements; they’d been assured by city administrators that all the concerns had been resolved. Supervisor Lavagnino — who represents Santa Maria — termed this incident “a big hiccup,” and promised Patino and Waterfield they’d have plenty of opportunities to reject the project if their concerns were not addressed. In the meantime, he said, the supervisors would be pursuing the state and federal grant funding to help underwrite the deal. 

Lavagnino also had the last word when it came to Fr. Jon Hedges. “I grew up in a church where everyone talked about things but nobody did too much,” he said. “[Father Jon] was the exact opposite.”

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