The Johnson family has always been counted on to provide a safe harbor, a sense of community and a place of celebration — and the historic tradition shows no signs of slowing.
The Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara held an official grand opening celebration Friday afternoon for Johnson Court, a newly constructed complex of 16 studio apartments that are the city’s first to be dedicated to housing homeless veterans. City residents, elected officials and partner groups came together to celebrate the new housing opportunity, honor the legacy of the Johnson family, including Anne and Vernon, and give a special thanks to Ken Williams, a local homeless advocate who worked tirelessly to bring attention to the homeless community.
Mr. Johnson is revered for what his daughter, Jenda, described as his ubiquitous philosophy: There’s no such thing as a problem. He epitomized the famous Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” with his defiance on solving homeless and even resorted to stacking railroad box cars for shelter at the lot in the 800 block of East Carrillo Street as a way for shelter.
The Army Air corpsman was known for having such a positive outlook on life that even when he was blown out of the side of an exploding airplane in 1944, he still had the spirit to encourage his surgeon to cheer up, Jenda told the crowd.
The lot was purchased by the Johnson family in 1976, housing Anne and Vernon, as well as their eight kids.
“Throughout our lives, father made it clear to us that the most important thing that any one of us could do in life is to make another person feel valued at our presence,” Jenda said. “And our mother and father did just that for so many people. They could be counted on to provide a safe harbor, a sense of community and a place of celebration. And mother would be astonished by what the Housing Authority, Santa Barbara Foundation and everybody has pulled together here today.
“It is ever so much more elegant than box cars.”
The community room of the complex was dedicated to Mr. Williams, who died in 2018 at the age of 68. His lifelong effort of homeless outreach for the local at-risk community was not lost during Friday’s ceremony, as Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, presented the Johnson family and Mr. Williams’ wife, Donna, with an American flag that has been flown over the nation’s capital.
Mr. Williams, who served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, believed that a society is judged by how it cares for the least fortunate, Ms. Williams explained.
“It was his experience with war that led him to believe our veterans, who gave so much and all too often received so little, were perhaps the most deserving of that care,” she said, as she then read one of Mr. Williams’ poems titled “Why I Write,” which detailed why he tried to be the voice of the voiceless.
Both Jenda Johnson and Ms. Williams received a standing ovation from the crowd as they concluded their remarks.
“I truly believe that Ken and Vernon are both here with us in spirit, looking down on us and saying ‘good on all of you, this is what needs to be done,’” said Rob Fredericks, CEO and executive director of the Housing Authority.
Furnishing for the units was donated by the Santa Barbara Foundation. Several units were open for viewing Friday afternoon, with each studio containing a bathroom with a walk-in shower, a bed and night stand, dresser and small kitchen area that included a sink and oven. The housing, aimed for low-income veterans, also features a two-bedroom manager unit and on-site supportive services. All units will be subsidized with Project Based Housing Choice Vouchers, making rent affordable at 30% of residents’ income.
Alice Villarreal Redit, resident manager for the site, told the audience she met Mr. Williams about 14 years ago during the development of El Carrillo apartments. As a longtime social worker in the community, Mr. Williams’ voice was critical as Housing Authority solicited feedback from groups on what housing options were needed.
“He was a tireless advocate for those living on the margins,” Ms. Redit said. “He engaged with each person that he helped with such dedication. I learned a lot from Ken, and I also learned early on that it was hard to say no to Ken because he truly was the voice of reason and the voice of compassion.
“There’s no way to truly measure the impact that Ken Williams has had on our community, or how many lives he touched and saved along the way. His efforts were deeply impactful and life-changing.”
Pat Wheatley, chair of the HACSB Commission, said that the site is the perfect blend of commitment, service and recognition to the needs of our community and thanked all those responsible for the new affordable housing complex, including the Johnson family.
“Your vision and your commitment have truly created a legacy of service that will last for many years to come,” she said. “May this model be one that can be replicated in the future to serve the needs of so many in our community.
“May it only be the beginning.”