Homeless services altered during pandemic to continue serving those without shelter
While many businesses and services were forced to shut down for several months during the coronavirus pandemic, officials throughout the county have continued providing services for homeless individuals.
Emily Allen, director of homeless and veterans impact initiatives with Home For Good Santa Barbara County, told the News-Press that during the mid-March shutdowns that food insecurity was one of the first obvious impacts on people experiencing homelessness locally.
Home For Good partnered with several different restaurants who provided prepared food for distribution, working with the Rosewood Miramar Beach, Lunchbox delivery and catering and more recently McDonald’s.
In addition to food, the group distributed hygiene kits and public health information to those in need.
“It was a little bit different than what we normally do, which is very focused on trying to move people from homelessness to housing, make sure they have all their documents for Social Security and the DMV and putting things like that together,” she said. “A lot of that couldn’t happen in the same way. Kind of a shift to address more of people’s basic needs, during these few months, I would say.”
Several handwashing stations were installed throughout the county a few months ago, while Home For Good and other groups have been distributing cloth masks.
In addition, they partnered with Unite to Light, a local nonprofit that manufactures and distributes solar lamps and solar chargers, and have been providing local residents with chargers for their cell phones or computers, which are now being used to obtain counseling and mental health services.
“When libraries and day centers closed, people didn’t necessarily have access to electricity to charge their phones and other devices. We’ve been able to distribute a couple hundred of these solar chargers,” Ms. Allen said.
With so many services being offered through teleservice, Ms. Allen explained that the group wants to ensure those who need care have the necessary means to connect with healthcare providers.
During a recent webinar hosted by the UCSB Economic Forecast Project, City Administrator Paul Casey and Downtown Santa Barbara President Bob Stout talked about the reopening process for the downtown corridor, while also discussing the city’s homelessness issue.
Mr. Stout said he has been downtown more often in recent weeks “walking the street with my tape measure and my mask” and said he has witnessed a lot of transients. With businesses now reopened and storefronts beginning to welcome in customers again, more activity downtown would take people’s focus off the homeless, Mr. Stout said.
“When we have a bunch of people coming to town or just a busy Friday night in the bars or a busy night in the 1200 block in the restaurants or whatever, we don’t notice the homeless and the transients so much,” he said. “People feel safer because at the end of the day, homelessness is part of our modern world. I mean, we have a real inequity in people’s income, and there’s a lot of people that are struggling.”
He praised the city for its outreach to try and find people shelter, but acknowledged that many of them don’t want to be housed.
“Those folks, you can’t make them go into shelters,” he said. “We have a Mediterranean climate, which is great for outdoor dining, and it’s also great for sleeping outside, so I think it’s a challenge. But I think the more we activate it and we get people on the streets — especially if they’re outdoors eating and drinking -— then I really think that people won’t notice so much. They’ll feel safer, and it won’t be like it has been the last few months. It’s really been unusually bad, but I realize that it’s been that way because it didn’t really matter, nobody was downtown anyway.”
Though it is unclear if there was an actual increase in numbers when it comes to the local homeless population in recent months, Ms. Allen said the visibility factor was significant.
“When everybody else disappears and you’re seeing people experiencing homelessness, it’s very impactful,” she said.
Mr. Casey said the city is “terribly aware and sensitive” to the local homelessness issue, but explained that federal government and CDC guidelines prevented the city from disrupting homeless encampments.
“Part of that was so that they weren’t moving around, in case they were infected they’re not spreading it; also (it’s) a way if they happen to get tested, you know where to go back and deal with that,” Mr. Casey said. “That was hard, but we know State Street is starting to reopen up.
“We have a really good outreach team in City Net that has been very effective at reaching people, so they are hitting State Street really hard right now. Our police are going to be out there as well, so we’re going to try to get people to where they need to be and get State Street ready to roll and come back.”
Mr. Casey added that the state and federal government continue to give funds to address homelessness, which means the city will be able to fund outreach teams more aggressively to get people the services that they need.
To that end, Santa Barbara County was able to obtain nearly 70 hotel units in South County and has been working with other providers to add capacity and get the most vulnerable off the streets. There have also been discussions about expanding the New Beginning’s Safe Parking Program to ensure those who reside in their vehicles can do so in a safe manner.
Chuck Flacks, director of programs for People Assisting the Homeless, told the News-Press that the local shelter serves a specific clientele and while more job losses could mean more people living without shelter, the local facility has not yet seen an increase in need.
“I really think that homelessness, it’s a process, and I think that people who are new to homelessness, people who have recently lost a job, are much less likely to want to to access hardcore homeless services (such as PATH),” he said. “They’re going to go to friends and family, they’re going to couch surf, and worst case, live in their car for a while.”
Just as the pandemic caused widespread closures, PATH implemented social distancing and required residents to wear masks and practice good hygiene. The shelter has also instituted temperature checks for residents and anyone who comes in or out of the facility.
Although the Cacique Street service center is a congregate housing facility, it has not experienced any outbreaks or confirmed COVID-19 cases, Mr. Flacks said.
Three residents displayed symptoms and were immediately quarantined and taken off site. Two other staff members also showed symptoms and left work for two weeks. None of the symptomatic patients tested positive.
“Did any of these people have COVID? Likely, probably yes, but officially we’ve not had a single positive case of COVID come out of PATH, which frankly I am surprised about,” Mr. Flacks said. “I actually thought we would be going through a lot of people, I mean I thought we would see a lot.”
Moratoriums have been enacted to protect renters from being evicted during the pandemic, though Ms. Allen is fearful what may happen when rent finally comes due.
“When people are trying to pay their current rent and back rent and may or may not have employment, or maybe not at the same level… there could be a really significant increase in homelessness, potentially,” she said. “Our county and our cities are looking at funding homelessness prevention programs, which would be new to the extent that we haven’t done that since the American Recovery Act, the previous recovery act. Seeing what becomes available in the way of homelessness prevention I think is really going to be one of the things to keep an eye on.
“I think we’re all going to have to see what happens and try to respond as quickly as we can.”