Santa Barbara Rescue Mission | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

In the past year, local Santa Barbara governments spent almost $90 million trying to get people living on the streets — or in their cars — into housing. In that same time, private philanthropists spent $6 million. A white paper co-authored by Jon Clark of the Bower Foundation and Ben Romo — a political consultant with a bent for nonprofits — suggested a myriad of ways private donors can and are uniquely positioned to do more. Perhaps the most obvious need, Romo and Clark suggested, is helping keep people from becoming homeless in the first place. With COVID-inspired eviction protections poised to evaporate, that possibility is becoming more urgent. “A wave of new evictions has the potential to overwhelm the homeless-serving system,” they opined, “and undermine the efforts of many excellent organizations and strong leaders who have been successfully helping people escape encampments and other unsheltered situations.” 

In the past two quarters, 346 eviction petitions have been filed in Santa Barbara courts. Government agencies spent $38 million helping thousands of county tenants pay their rents. But such agencies lack the flexibility and nimbleness to intervene in countless small but critical ways to keep those on the economic ledge from falling off. It may be something as simple as a car repair enabling someone to keep their job. Government is not equipped to step into that breach, Romo said. The level of services required, Romo cautioned, do not currently exist. Private philanthropists want their money to go somewhere it can have a positive tangible impact, he explained, and the narrative in many media descriptions is one of futility. In fact, he insisted, much more is getting done that might be obvious. In the past five years, 920 new shelter and housing units have come online. The good news is that in the first quarter of 2022, 253 homeless people got into some form of permanent housing. But the bad news is that in that same time, 428 people became homeless for the first time. Romo and Clark will be taking their case to the Foundation Round Table and targeting specific private donors to get involved.

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