About 100 city big shots were on hand for Monday's opening of the FARO Center, including Santa Barbara Mayor Randy Rowse, wielding some theatrically oversized scissors designed for just such ribbon-cutting ceremonies. | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Rich Sander was getting choked up. Twenty years ago, he and his longtime co-conspirator, Jeff Shaffer, had begun using spaghetti as their tool of choice for reaching out to homeless people in Santa Barbara’s parks. He was explaining how their first big challenge was passing muster with a couple of longtime veterans of the streets, known as Gator and Shaky. They wanted to know what Sander and Shaffer were up to. Years later — after Shaky had died, Gator predicted they’d be reunited in the afterlife, saying, “I’m going to have my golden dumpster next to Shaky’s golden dumpster.”

“I want to offer another form of hope,” Sander said. “One that allows people to dream much larger.”

That dream — unimaginably attainable for nearly 20 years — was a homeless day center located somewhere impossibly downtown. This Monday afternoon, that day center — known as the FARO Center — opened its doors for business. About 100 city big shots were on hand, including Mayor Randy Rowse, wielding some theatrically oversized scissors designed for just such ribbon-cutting ceremonies. 

If all goes according to plan, the FARO Center — faro means “lighthouse” in Spanish, and it is an acronym for “Fostering Access, Resilience, and Opportunity”—will be open five days a week, four hours a day, offering a one-stop shop where homeless people and their would-be service providers can intersect and connect. It’s located on the 600 block of Chapala Street, set back far from the sidewalk, between Jodi House and the paint store. 

Yes, there will be a space where people can hang and chill. Cold water and bag lunches will be available. There’s only one shower, and that’s for people about to go for job interviews. Staff members will help writing résumés, getting birth certificates, and replacing Social Security cards. Homeless clients can store their belongings in a safe space at the FARO Center.

The whole point is getting people ready to make the move back into housing. The county’s Public Health Department will provide clinicians, and Behavioral Wellness Department will meet with clients facing mental health and substance abuse challenges. And there will be three staff members and four “ambassadors” (people who have succeeded in getting off the streets). 

Although the center will eventually provide services for 50 people a day, the plan is to start slow with maybe 35, allowing for a working groove to get established. The cost for rent and services comes to $700,000 a year. City Hall is on the hook for more than half, having signed a three-year lease to secure the property.

Previous efforts to locate a day center downtown always fizzled out. For the past 10 years, Sander and Shaffer and their nonprofit SBACT operated three “neighborhood navigation centers” for a couple of hours a day, for one day a week — always the same day — at two downtown parks and at one parking lot. Food was served, and mental health care, physical health care, pet care, spiritual care, and showers were offered. It was a space to meet, connect, and establish rapport. 

This past year, these operations accounted for 65 “street exits,” as they are called. But despite these successes, the number of people on Santa Barbara’s streets have just gone up for the first time in three years. 

This reality, coupled with the cloud of uncertainty hovering over downtown in general, has added a sense of urgency within City Hall. Helping lead the way from inside has been Barbara Andersen, formerly with SBACT but now a high-ranking administrative executive at City Hall. 

When the location of the proposed day center was first announced, predictably and understandably, there was an angry backlash among many nearby property owners. But the police chief, the fire chief, the city administrator, councilmember Michael Jordan, and Mayor Randy Rowse all met with the landlords, assuring them that the new site would not be allowed to become a problem. City Hall spends $5.4 million a year dealing with the direct and indirect costs associated with people on the streets. Nearly 20 percent of police calls for service — and 12 percent of fire department calls — involve homelessness. 

When the City Council voted to secure the property, the vote in favor was 7-0. When the planning commission deliberated on the changes proposed, the results were similarly unanimous.

Now the center has only to deliver. “We birthed the baby,” stated Barbara Andersen. “Now we’ll see how long it takes for it to walk.”

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