About 40 people holding battery-powered Candelária assembled in front of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse this Wednesday evening — the longest night of the year — to commemorate the lives of the homeless people who died in Santa Barbara this past year.
Unitarian minister Julia Hamilton pounded the thick courthouse door three times with her fist, declaring, “We’re here to ask the whole community to bear witness to these lives.” Hamilton was one of several religious leaders who participated; others included a rabbi, a cantor, a Quaker, a Tibetan Buddhist, and two Christian folk singers.
Before the brief ceremony had concluded, the names of 23 homeless individuals who died in Santa Barbara the past year were read aloud. That list was not meant to be exhaustive or complete. No information was provided as to whether these individuals died inside or outside, of what causes, how old they were, where they were from, or how they found themselves on the street.
No mention was made either of the looming polar vortex, which is reportedly is bringing bitingly cold weather patterns into Central and Southern California. But Hamilton stressed how many people on the streets now find themselves “struggling on the brink.” She exhorted those in attendance, “Keep an eye out for each other,” and asked them to be prepared to show up for City Council and county Board of Supervisors meetings to testify when needed.
Thepo Tulku, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, noted that the number of people who find themselves without homes continues to grow. “We still need to be more compassionate,” he said. “It’s not time to feel,” he added. “It’s not time to think. It’s time to act.”
Many of the people assembled were affiliated with faith-based congregations active in progressive causes. Many represented organizations that served homeless people themselves. One activist — now off the streets — had flatlined several times during the years he spent on the streets.
One woman now resides at the DignityMoves tiny village on the 1000 block of Santa Barbara Street along with a pet chihuahua. Before that, she lived in a van and was a familiar face on State Street, where she always seemed to have a good word for passersby.
The day prior to Wednesday evening’s gathering, newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass had just declared a state of emergency over the homeless crisis seizing that city. Some in the crowd wondered whether such an initiative might make sense in Santa Barbara.
Hamilton reminded attendees that volunteers will be needed for this year’s Point-in-Time count — taking place January 23 — during which time the latest and most accurate tabulation of Santa Barbara’s homeless population will take place.
“We need to see each other,” she said. “We need to know who is there.”
The Longest Night ceremony — as Wednesday’s event is called — has been taking place for many years now, always by the courthouse door over which the words “God Gave Man the Country; the Skill of Man Hath Built the City” are inscribed. This year, the event was sponsored by the nonprofit organization S.B. ACT, whose cofounder Rich Sander explained how he and the group became so focused on the issue of homelessness.
Sander and fellow cofounder Jeff Shaffer both got involved because of their religious beliefs. Sander recalled asking Shaffer why he cared so deeply about the issue. Shaffer reportedly replied, “I don’t know exactly what I believe about God or about a higher power, but I just don’t think they’d be comfortable with people dying on the streets. Not in a town like this.”