A homeless woman sleeping on State Street | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Over the last three weeks, three homeless women died in plain sight in downtown Santa Barbara. One was murdered, one walked in front of an oncoming car, and the other’s basic life functions simply came to a stop on the 1200 block of State Street. For those in the trenches trying to expand the scope of options for people experiencing homelessness, these are sobering realities. The stories of these three women remain more guessed at than known. In the same historical moment, however, those in the same trenches took small but definite strides to better connect with those on the streets and to provide some actual housing for those deemed most vulnerable.

After not one but two ribbon-cutting ceremonies, delivery was finally made for the 33 pre-fab, pop-up tiny homes that will soon become the Dignity Moves housing court. This new complex will be located in a county-owned parking lot on the 1000 block of Santa Barbara Street. Although the project remains several months late, occupancy is expected to take place sometime this June. The actual pop-ups — which are now being assembled — were manufactured in Bahrain. The logjam of cargo ships backed up in Long Beach harbor slowed down delivery considerably. The nagging jurisdictional question now is how eligibility for these coveted spots will be determined. Stay tuned.

THE MISSION FOR AN EASTSIDE NAVIGATION CENTER: With considerably less fanfare, there was one small but ebullient ribbon-cutting ceremony early last Wednesday morning presided over by at least one elected official at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission. It was for the grand opening of the new Neighborhood Navigation Center that will now operate at the site every Wednesday morning.

Neighborhood Navigation Center ribbon-cutting at Rescue Mission

This brings the grand total of Neighborhood Navigation Centers within city limits to three. The grand opening was marked by a decidedly festive and energetic vibe. More than 50 people were served hot breakfasts of eggs, toast, hash brown potatoes, and sausage. Doctors Without Walls was on hand, as were volunteers with the Santa Barbara Support Network — “We’re Hear to Listen,” their sign read — as well as outreach workers with the county’s Department of Behavioral Wellness. Many of the people taking advantage of the center’s one-stop-shop opportunities were guests of the Rescue Mission; many, however, were not, coming from the many freeway undercrossings located throughout the city’s Eastside where unhoused people congregate.

Last Wednesday, there was no shortage of people perambulating about with the assistance of crutches, walkers, canes, and wheelchairs. A cluster of bikes was parked out front. Jeff Shaffer, Barbara Andersen, and Rich Sander — the trio running SB ACT, a city sponsored nonprofit dedicated to getting people off the street and into housing — were happily on hand for a moment they said was six months in the making. In the back of the room — which typically functions as the Rescue Mission’s chapel — there were a couple racks brimming over with donated clothes.

The biggest line, however, was the one operated by the city library. Library workers were on hand to provide books, videos, and even laptop services. But their ace in the hole was the help they offered those in need in filling out the forms needed to obtain a Social Security card, get their birth certificate, or fill out a host of government forms without which no services can be obtained. In recent months, the library has begun dispatching its mobile van to the three navigation centers that SB ACT has got up and operating. Without the necessary paperwork, it’s impossible for people on the street to get jobs or to think about qualifying for the limited housing that’s available. “Everyone hates dealing with government agencies and filling out forms,” said library administrator Molly Wetta. “Even for people who have college degress, jobs and roofs over their head, it’s hard for us. But here we’re dealing with people who’se lives are precarious enough as it is. To expect them to stand in line at some centralized government office building is not really reasonable. For them it’s not merely aggravating, as it might be for us. It’s a huge impediment.”

SB ACT’s Jeff Shaffer (left) and Councilmember Mike Jordan

Busily signing affadavits of homelessness was Kevin Carroll, the Rescue Mission’s Director of Homeless Services. With these affadavits, applicants can obtain their birth certificate free of charge. Depending on the state or the county of origin, birth certificates would otherwise cost anywhere from $35 to $50. For many, that would be an insurmountable hurdle.

Carroll grew up in the Modesto neighborhoods of Stanislaus County, but he has worked the last three years for the Rescue Mission. In a previous incarnation he was a drug-and-alcohol counselor and before that a juvenile probation officer. He carries himself with the sturdy authority of someone who played offensive tackle for his high school football team. The Rescue Mission operates pretty much the only shelter in town that embodies the classic first-come-first-served, come-as-you-are shelter. It has a maximum capacity of 120 beds, but the night before, Carroll reported, the mission had 34 women guests and 72 men — so not quite full, but close. If Carroll has seen it all throughout his professional career — 16 years working with the homeless — he still comes across as someone for whom hope is not a four-letter word. “Yea, there are some bad apples among the homeless. But most of these people, the people we see, they’re just struggling,” he said. “A lot of these people were seriously traumatized.” Commenting on his own life journey, he said, “I’ve been blessed.”

Connecting the dots that made this latest Navigation Center actually happen, however, was Jerianne Gargano, a homeless guest service worker two years out of Westmont College. Jeff Shaffer and the SB ACT crew had been beating the bushes on the city’s Eastside for more than six months trying to find a third location before encountering Gargano, who offered up the Rescue Mission.

SB ACT had been getting nowhere fast. Some on the Eastside feel their neighborhood has done more than its fair share where the homeless are concerned, having had the shelter formerly known as Casa Esperanza crammed down their throats. Back in the day, there were no shortage of neighborhood complaints about collateral damage inflicted by Casa Esperanza. Those complaints quieted down when the shelter was bought out several years ago by PATH, a statewide shelter operation of considerable renown. But under PATH, the paradigm shifted and the drop-in trade all but evaporated. There was considerably less space for guests not actively engaged in specific transitional programs. PATH has also struggled to find on-site management; shelters, it turns out are notoriously difficult to run from afar or part-time. But the high cost of living in Santa Barbara has made it even harder still to recruit experienced managers.

Luck met coincidence for Shaffer, who ran into the Rescue Mission’s Gargano during a neighborhood stakeholder Zoom call. For Shaffer and SB ACT, the Neighborhood Navigation Center is the foundational vehicle for establishing connection and trust with a transient population that is notoriously short-supplied when it comes to trust or connection. But the centers allow service providers to get to know those who need the help. Most homeless people walk only so far in a day, Shaffer noted. It’s not reasonable to expect them to congregate at one centralized service spot to get help; instead, the city needs to sprout with decentralized spots — Navigation Centers — that provide such services. It’s almost a tenet of the Shaffer credo that every neighborhood needs one.

At the Rescue Mission’s Navigation Center opening

Preaching is one thing, Shaffer has discovered; converting the Eastside skeptics and doubters quite another. Into this void leapt Gargano, suggesting the Rescue Mission might be open. As a site, it’s a little small; there’s no space outside for the Shower of Blessings portable showers that makes the Navigation Center at the parking lot by Castillo and Carrillo so inviting to so many people every Tuesday. To provide shower services at the Rescue Mission’s Navigation Center will require some logistical fancy footwork. Gargano said she’d visited the two other centers and saw what services they provided. “I realized our guests could really benefit from having one of these events more accessible to them,” she said.

According to SB ACT, these centers work, however much time it takes. In the past year, Shaffer said, there were 98 “street exits” in the past year that he attributes to the two Navigation Centers already up and operating. 

That’s the good news.

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NOT A HAPPY DAY: The bad news is that last Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors signed the bureaucratic equivalent of a death certificate for a promising 24-bed drug-and-alcohol rehab program run by the Salvation Army at its downtown shelter on Chapala Street. The program opened in 2019 with much fanfare. MediCal would cover the costs of providing medically assisted treatment for those with serious addiction issues for up to six months. On the South Coast, this was almost unheard of. In 2020, the program treated 282 people. Then COVID struck. Not only did fewer addicts want to risk living in close quarters with other addicts, but there weren’t enough licensed rehab workers. Because the program involved medical treatment — not just variants of the 12-step programs — actual licenses were required. “It’s not the social model,” stressed Salvation Army Director Mark Gisler.

With the onslaught of COVID, Gisler had a hard time maintaining anything but the bare minimum of licensed workers. Then, not even that many. By October, they could staff at only 60 percent of what state licensing required. It all took a toll. There were fewer workers and more relapses. State licensing gave Gisler and Salvation Army 90 days to find staff. On January 10, their 90-day deadline expired. Last Tuesday, the county supervisors quietly approved the paperwork to pull the plug and take the program off life support. In so doing, Salvation Army left $4.5 million in approved funding still on the table. Unspent. That’s a lot of addicts unserved. “It crushed me, to be honest,” said Gisler. “It’s not a happy day.”

A homeless camp just off Highway 101 in Santa Barbara | Paul Wellman (file)

THREE DEATHS IN THREE WEEKS: All that is just the routine background noise experienced by those seeking to address not the issue of homelessness but actual people who happen to be homeless. Good news chases the bad. Bad news chases the good.

More drastic and dramatic are the three recent deaths that underscore living a life on the streets. The first to go was Theresa Carina, 50, who was strangled to death early in the morning of March 14. Her accused killer, Gabriel Zepeda — a 46-year-old drifter from Santa Maria — allegedly confessed to the crime. Carina, described by authorities as a woman afflicted with mental illness who slept regularly on the door step of Mountain Air Sports, a well-known business at the bottom of State Street. Court records paint a protracted spiral downward over the years for Carina — divorce, unemployment, evictions — followed by multiple petty offenses. Authorities say she was polite and neat, taking pains to leave her sleeping spot clean and vacated long before the shop opened for business.

Zepeda — recently released from County Jail and wearing an ankle bracelet tracker so he could see his ailing grandmother before she died—had his own history: multiple instances of spousal abuse, stalking, and, most recently, angry erratic behavior on State Street. As polite as Carina reportedly was, she wasn’t going to take any grief from Zepeda when the two first encountered each other. Words were exchanged. Then they got hotter. When it was over, Zepeda sought to truss Carina’s arms and feet, ostensibly to haul her body away. He didn’t get far when he thought better of it and fled. Police would arrest him at about 2 in the morning on Stearns Wharf.

Last week, the body of a woman known only as Christine was found on the 1200 block of State Street. (Her last name will be released upon notification of next of kin.) Christine was well-known to police and businesses in the area; she was well liked. Many felt the impulse to look out for her; several sought to find Christine a home. She never accepted. That’s not where she belonged, she would explain. Even Jeff Shaffer of SB ACT, who knows many of the downtown homeless people by name, never got to know Christine’s back story. She never let anyone get close enough. The folklore among the police is that Christine had been pulled over when driving through town about 20 years ago. Her tags were expired. Her license had expired. She had no insurance. Her car, accordingly, was impounded. And she’d been living on the street ever since, sleeping behind a prominent downtown business. She was born in 1957.

Early this week, a 57-year old-woman named Debra Reynoso was struck and killed by the 31-year-old driver of a Buick Le Sabre when she walked into the right-hand lane of Highway 101 headed south by Castillo Street. According to the California Highway Patrol, Reynoso had been walking along the side of the freeway before entering the lane. The driver stopped, called the police, and waited. There was no evidence of drugs or alcohol. Reynoso had recently been arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon. The court record indicates that her mental health was sufficiently fragile that a psychiatric exam was ordered. She’d been homeless for several years.

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