When Jeff Gaddess went home at night during the height of the heat wave, he said his house was 94 degrees inside. But the people living in the temporary village of 33 tiny homes that just popped up on the 1000 block of Santa Barbara Street that Gaddess manages enjoy a steady stream of air-conditioned air blowing within the four prefab walls of their individualized cabins. When these pop-up homes were first announced as a response to chronic homelessness, there was some skepticism about the AC, perceived not just as an extravagance but unnecessary one given Santa Barbara’s notoriously mild weather. But as the DignityMoves tiny-home village enters its fifth week of full occupancy, it’s made a huge difference. “It’s been so important,” Gaddess exclaimed.
Some DignityMoves residents have been homeless as long as 40 years. All have been vetted for mental-health issues, addictions, and other traumas that come with life on the streets. The residents range in age from 30 to 80; about half are women; seven have found jobs since moving in. Their arrivals were calibrated gradually, a handful at a time over a two-week period to ease in a major transition.
Residents have their own quarters and a door they can lock. Good Samaritan, which offers about 500 shelter beds throughout Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, coordinates medical treatment, mental-health services, and a range of counseling options designed to get residents stabilized enough to move on to longer-term housing options within six months.
Perhaps the most striking news about DignityMoves — a non-congregate-care homeless shelter in the heart of downtown — is the extent to which it’s generated no news at all. No one walking by would necessarily know it’s even there. There’s no one loitering or hanging around out front. The front gate is always closed; it rarely opens.
“I’m pretty surprised by how quiet the shelter is,” said one close neighbor. “Thirty-two people living below our windows haven’t added much to the overall noise of downtown.”
A couple of residents, he said, have been disruptive. “The shelter team seems to be jumping on the issues pretty quickly. They try to work with people to give them a chance to settle in but ask them to leave if it doesn’t work out.” To date, Gaddess said, three residents have been exited.
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Sergeant Ethan Ragsdale reported there’d been four calls for service to the DignityMoves community since it opened its doors. One was a welfare check, one was a homeless-related disturbance, one was disturbance in process, and one was a suspicious subject. “I don’t believe there has been an increase in issues related to the property,” Ragsdale commented. According to one of DignityMoves’ neighbors, the biggest “disturbance” to the area had nothing to do with DignityMoves itself, but someone on parole living in his car across the street.
It’s still too soon for grand conclusions, but the visual presence of chronically homeless people in downtown Santa Barbara has waned mildly but perceptibly since DignityMoves opened. Several of the higher-profile individuals on State Street have gone inside from the heat. Their absence is subtly felt.
“The biggest challenge is getting people to believe we can make a difference,” Gaddess said.
Maybe so, but Santa Barbara’s Board of Supervisors clearly believes. This Tuesday, the board entered into closed-door real estate negotiations with Good Samaritan to expand the number of such sites on publicly owned properties throughout Santa Barbara County. In all, this could conceivably give rise to as many as 250 more pop-up houses.
Longtime conservative activist Andy Caldwell of COLAB lambasted these closed-session discussions as “A WHOPPER OF WOKENESS.” In his email, Caldwell expressed skepticism about the likelihood that such housing could help homeless people find a new path. “If that works, God Bless them … however…,” he wrote.
Supervisor Bob Nelson took pointed exception. The idea that the supervisors had somehow bypassed the public process, he said, was “absurd and embarrassing,” noting the large number of lengthy discussions on homelessness the supervisors have held over the past two years.
Supervisor Steve Lavagnino was even pointier still, wondering why some of the most vocal critics of such programs are often quite zealous in their religious faith. To them, he said, “Truly I say to you, as you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me.”