Seeing, Hearing, and Accepting Santa Barbara’s Unhoused Population
A Student’s Reflection on Participating in the Point in Time Count
It’s difficult to rally a group of 10 high school students. Especially when the enticing proposal starts with “so, we get there at 5 a.m.” But, before dawn on Wednesday morning, January 25, my classmates and I gathered at Christ Presbyterian Church on Anacapa Street, eager to volunteer for the county’s Point-in-Time Count, the annual census of the people experiencing homelessness in Santa Barbara.
The morning became much more than a census or tally. I was blessed with three hours of sensitive conversations, brave stories, and meaningful connections. I felt closer to my classmates and my community than ever before.
But when I returned to school, I was dismayed to see this headline in the daily newspaper on my history teacher’s desk: “Unsafe on State Street: Residents address Santa Barbara City Council about aggressive homeless people”
After experiencing one of the most transformative mornings of my life, this demonizing headline seemed to discredit every heroic story of bravery and courage I now cherished.
Young people, especially those who have taken the trouble to wake up in the dark and participate in the Point-in-Time Count, or PiT, know better than to make invalid assumptions about vulnerable individuals. With all due respect to those who have had negative experiences on the streets of Santa Barbara, we are tired of the clichés and dehumanization. Here’s why.
Shine a Light
In the dark hours of morning, light found its way into each interaction. With Richard, it happened to be both emotional and physical.
Sitting on the sidewalk of East Montecito Street, I spoke with Richard, a man who’s been experiencing homelessness for three years. I was the first in my group to spark a conversation, and although initially tentative, I’m so glad I crossed the Santa Barbara train tracks to meet Richard.
I think we all have train tracks that need crossing, though. Acknowledge your physical, emotional, and mental train tracks. What beliefs are holding you back from connecting with our fellow community members? Only when you take the leap across the tracks can you gain the wisdom, connection, and light that our community has to offer.
As we finished up the survey, Richard asked if we had a flashlight. We scrambled through our supply bags, but to no avail. But one student, Natalie, searched her pack and returned to Richard, offering him her own flashlight. His response, a thoughtful “Thank you, Natalie,” moved her. Hearing her name and recognizing Richard’s depth of gratitude reminded her of the humanity behind the work we were doing. She explains that “the grateful smiles and ‘thank you’s’ had more depth to them than I can describe and evoked emotions I will never forget.”
On the dark Wednesday morning, Richard found his light by simply asking. And that morning, I did the same. By simply asking Richard about his life, I saw his light, graciousness, and benevolence. For both of us, taking the time to ask questions illuminated the early morning.
Ask Better Questions
As a society, we love our idioms. I think “home is where the heart is” is ingrained in our vocabulary upon entering the world. Yet, how often do we ignore our very own phrase? We claim that home follows the heart, yet we are so quick to label someone as homeless.
On Wednesday, I met a man, who I’ll call Biker, who challenged this very viewpoint. As we conducted the survey, Biker got continually frustrated at the question’s repetition of the term homeless.
He gestured to the tarp behind him, explaining, “This is my home. It just happens to be on the streets.” And he’s right. Biker has found home in the most difficult situation. He’s forged friendships and found identity on the streets — a courageous feat.
Biker reminded me firsthand of why we use the terms we do, and how the term “homeless people” doesn’t allow for stories like Biker’s to shine through. It makes a temporary state of living inseparable from someone’s identity. It also inadvertently associates negative stereotypes with the human attached to the phrase.
Biker nudged our group toward asking better questions in the future. I believe we can still aid the county in tracking the needs of those on the streets while asking questions that show more respect to these individuals’ daily lives. How did you choose the spot you slept last night? What would make it better? What would you like best?
Let’s stick to our idiom and allow home to be where the heart is. In eliminating labels from our conversations, we’ll be able to truly hear the stories and individual needs of our community members, ensuring that our work remains people-oriented.
Sometimes It Takes a Tent
There’s a disconnect between those experiencing homelessness and those who are not. I mean, look at the headlines filling the news or the tendency to walk by less fortunate community members and completely ignore their presence. It’s interesting how such extreme alienation can lead to a complete dismissal of an entire community.
On Wednesday, two members from my group conducted a survey through a tent. Although physically separated from the individual, Chris, the students were able to hear his life story — the physical disconnect held no bearing on the vitality of the conversation. At the end of the survey, Chris opened his tent to thank the two students, wearing a smile that spoke a thousand words.
The priceless connection that occurred despite physical separation reminded me of the necessity of conversation. These students couldn’t see him, but they could hear Chris’s story. Once he felt heard, he could allow himself to be seen.
Chris’s need for a physical barrier might allow us to reconsider shelters, like “homeless encampments.” Maybe these shelters shouldn’t be seen as necessarily dangerous for those who live in or encounter them. Rather, these barriers may serve as tools for individuals needing to shelter themselves from the harsh judgements and assumptions that people make about them upon first glance.
We must attempt to connect with communities despite a sense of separation. When we emphasize emotional connection over physical detachment and truly take the time to listen, we may be greeted with an open tent and gleaming smile, just like Chris’s.
I feel blessed to have been able to connect with my community and set many individuals up with outreach workers and resources. I’ll never forget the stories I heard on Wednesday — stories of fatherhood, perseverance, passion. The benevolence I found in conversations with vulnerable community members reminds me of the humanity behind villainizing headlines.
I hope that we all take time to listen, to care, and to love. We won’t adequately support our Santa Barbara community until we fully understand it. Everyone has a story; you just have to listen.
Molly Morouse is a senior at Laguna Blanca School and president of the school’s SOCK Club (Social Outreach Conducted by Kids). She’s forged relationships with the community at Alameda Park and feels that she understands her own community the better for it. This was her second year participating in the Point-in-Time Count.
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