Program Director Debbie McQuade, Fr. Joe Schwab OFM, and Center Supervisor Sr. Arthur Gordon DC | Credit: Gail Arnold

Santa Barbara’s unsheltered population has long had shelters offering overnight accommodations, but no place for the unsheltered to go during the day. In January 2019, the Franciscan Friars at Old Mission Santa Barbara and the Daughters of Charity at St. Vincent’s teamed up to fill this void, opening the Fr. Virgil Cordano Center (FVCC). This drop-in day center, open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., offers a welcoming place for support, rest, meals, and much more.

According to Fr. Joe Schwab of Old Mission Santa Barbara, the center grew out of a common interest of the Franciscan Friars and the Daughters of Charity to fill the critical need for a day center and to be directly connected with the poor. One of the most valuable components offered, according to Fr. Joe, is someone to speak with as a friend. 

Sr. Arthur from St. Vincent’s, who assumed the role of center supervisor three years ago, concurred. She often hears from guests that nobody else talks to them. Each has his or her own story of becoming homeless and, according to Sr. Arthur, over time, many come forward and open up. Once staff and volunteers learn their stories, they can provide more help. The team comprises Program Director Debbie McQuade, a staff assistant, about 35 lay volunteers, Sr. Arthur, Fr. Joe, and other Daughters and Friars.

Upon arrival, guests are greeted by name — a seemingly small gesture that means a lot to them, according to Sr. Arthur. An average of 70 guests, including a group of regulars, come each day. The majority of them are men, but there are middle-aged and older women too. A temperature check, hand sanitizer, and a fresh mask help keep everyone COVID-safe. 

The meal service is tremendously appreciated by guests, according to McQuade, with guests complimenting staff and volunteers every day. “The best food in town,” they often hear. Food is largely donated by Lazy Acres and Bristol Farms and, according to Sr. Arthur, volunteers are very creative with the ingredients they receive. Sr. Arthur brings oatmeal every morning, and volunteers sometimes bring freshly baked sweets. Guests are allowed unlimited servings, including to-go packages for their dinner.

McQuade related how FVCC strives to provide a sense of community to guests and to let each guest know they matter to the FVCC team. Concern is expressed for their individual challenges and genuine affection is extended to everyone. Appreciation by guests is apparent every day, according to McQuade, with a common farewell from guests being “Thanks a lot. I love you.”

The center has 34 lounge chairs, which many guests use to sleep or rest because those on the street get little sleep and those in the downtown shelters have about a 90-minute walk to get to FVCC, which is located in a shopping center on Calle Real near Sansum/Pesetas Lane. A small chapel offers a place for spiritual counseling, solitude, and conversations between a guest and a staff member or volunteer. 

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Partner Good Samaritan Shelter provides a staff person to assist guests with getting housing. Computers are available to help with housing and job searches. Last month, 11 guests obtained a new job and four got housing.

A laundromat section is appreciated by guests, especially on days that they get a shower from Showers of Blessing. The center serves as a mailing address for guests, enabling them to qualify for some government benefits that require a physical address. Hygiene kits and socks are distributed.

Many of the volunteers come from St. Barbara’s Parish at Old Mission and from other Catholic churches, but FVCC welcomes all volunteers. Each volunteer brings his or her own invaluable gifts and style, according to McQuade, which enriches what FVCC does.

The COVID lockdown in March 2020 shuttered the facility, but with an offer from UCSB to deliver prepared food each day, the FVCC team quickly turned its facility into a food-packing hall. Its volunteers packed up and delivered up to 185 lunches to the unsheltered in parks downtown three days per week until the center could safely reopen in August 2021. This continuity of service, according to Sr. Arthur, helped enable a smooth transition upon reopening.

The majority of funding for FVCC comes from the Franciscan Friars and the Daughters of Charity, about a quarter from grants, and the rest from donations. Even small donations can have a big impact. For example, with more donations, the center could offer bus tokens for guests living downtown so they don’t have to endure the 90-minute trek to the center. Current revenue allows for tokens only for guests’ appointments.

Last December, the center was able to double its space by partnering with Good Samaritan Shelter to lease an adjacent, connected space, which was used as a cooling center for the unsheltered on hot days, providing lounge chairs and several large fans. When the cooling center was not activated, it was part of FVCC. Recently, the partnership with Good Samaritan ended and the space has been fully incorporated into FVCC.

The center hopes to move to a larger facility in the area, which will enable it to serve more unsheltered people and to offer more services directly and through partnerships with other agencies on site. It hopes also to build tiny houses for the unsheltered. A property has been identified, a loan for the property has been secured, and, once acquired, a capital campaign will launch to fund construction.

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