Homelessness is a major problem in Santa Barbara, with hundreds living on the streets. In Santa Barbara County, 22 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
The Father Virgil Cordano Center isn’t going to end poverty or homelessness, but is working to build a more connected community.
Located at 4020 Calle Real, the Cordano Center is a large facility. With a kitchen, two dryers and washers, a main area, and a small chapel, it’s large enough to comfortably accommodate a group of around 30 people, but small enough that it offers a sense of warmth and togetherness. It is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
It is a joint mission of the Daughters of Charity at St. Vincent’s and the Franciscian Friars at the Santa Barbara Mission.
The center was named after Father Virgil Cordano, who preached the Catholic doctrine to Santa Barbara for more than 50 years until his death in 2008.
The center’s primary constituents are the homeless, who use the facility to rest, do laundry, socialize, charge their phones and other routine things.
“The underlying factor of doing this work is to let these people know that God loves them and we love them. It’s very simple. We’re trying to build a sense of community,” the Rev. John Hardin, one of the primary caretakers, said.
The center also serves as a mailing address, which allows homeless individuals to receive mail it may otherwise never see.
“One of the things we found is that there were very few places for people to just be. To hang out,” the Rev. Hardin said about the center’s purpose.
The center is staffed by volunteers from the Franciscian Friars, such as the Rev. Hardin, and the Daughters of Charity, such as Sister Linda Mulvehill. Brother Angelo Cardinalli is another friar who volunteers at the center. Thirty other volunteers come from around the community, said Cynthia Estrada, the program director.
Ms. Estrada knows everyone who comes through the facility. One of her responsibilities is to help people navigate the web of social services and agencies and fill out forms.
“It’s not that they don’t know about these services. Try to fill out the form. It’s like 18 pages for some of this stuff, it takes a Ph.D to fill this out,” the Rev. Hardin said.
The center directs people to such services as the Native American Health Center and the Showers of Blessing project. The project provides showers, clothing and snacks for the homeless.
One of the features of the center is the Companionship Club, which people who use the services more than once are required to join. There are 177 people signed up for the club, while 45 to 50 people regularly visit the center.
“It’s no cost. It’s to sign a pledge that you will maintain human dignity among one another, those kinds of things,” the Rev. Hardin said.
When it comes to the Roman Catholic Church, the friars and sisters preach through their examples and not in their words.
“[Saint] Francis was quoted as saying …’Preach often. If necessary, use words.’ We preach through our example of being here and being open to people,” the Rev. Hardin said.
“It’s that whole sense of belonging, a sense of community. It’s not just giving them housing or food or whatever, it’s making them feel bonded,” he said.
The center is funded entirely by donations and does not receive any government funding. It keeps a list of people who have donated over $3,000.
“Father Alfred Boeddeker, one of our friars, said that if you do the right things and you tell people about it, the finances will come. And this is proof in the pudding here,” the Rev. Hardin said.
The center also receives food donations from places like Lucky Acres and Panera Bread.
Government agencies, such as the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, often refer homeless individuals to the center.
The problem of homelessness is not going away anytime soon. But one way to help break it down is to change the attitudes of people. To see them as people.
“They’re here. And they will be here. But as human beings we can help to alleviate some of their suffering, by giving them a little shelter or something to eat even if it might be a short-time,” Sister Mulvehill said.
As for the future of the center, the Rev. Hardin wants to see more of these kinds of facilities across Santa Barbara.
“I think even though this [facility] is small and we can only hold 25 people comfortably, it’s better to do in a small group than to have a big warehouse, because then you get lost. I would hope to see them do a number of these all over the city than having one big place,” he said.
To learn more about volunteer opportunities at the center or to donate, visithttps://frvirgilcordanocenter.org/.