Westmont College students build a connection with homeless individuals
On any given Thursday evening, a group of Westmont College students treks to Alameda Park where they mingle and break bread with other Santa Barbara residents.
It’s an evening of communication, fellowship and engagement. But it’s also a time for the students to interact with a community often excluded or ignored.
The students are part of Westmont College’s Downtown Program, described as a “semester in social entrepreneurship.” They live off-campus and spend the semester serving in a variety of internships meant to engrain them in the Santa Barbara community while applying their disciplines in a “real-world” setting, Dr. Rick Ostrander, the executive director of Westmont Downtown, told the News-Press.
For several students, this means the opportunity to work with SBACT, Bread of Life, the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission or other organizations serving the unhoused population.
This means they are able to congregate in Alameda Park on Thursday evenings as a Neighborhood Navigation Center is set up to provide a wide array of services including case management aid, food, mental and physical health care, pet care and more.
Didi Bulow, a Westmont senior who leads Bread of Life, said the time in Alameda Park is more about engagement than an automated service.
“More than anything, Westmont and Bread of Life is down there to meet other people, grow our community and make friends,” Ms. Budlow, a 21-year-old from Boulder, Colorado, told the News-Press.
“The work that Bread of Life does, it’s not necessarily a service, but rather a chance to engage as we all should be. That’s just a population of the Santa Barbara community, and I think they’re often overlooked because of their circumstance,” she said.
The work students are engaged in during the Westmont Downtown initiative is “friendship-based,” said Jeff Shaffer, the director of initiatives for SBACT who works with the college’s program.
And that’s particularly true for Sydney Azzarello.
Ms. Azzarello interned with the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission last year, helping with guest services. It was there she met a couple who, prior to the COVID-19, were living paycheck-to-paycheck. But when the pandemic wreaked its havoc financially and medically on so many, the couple got behind on rent and became unhoused.
This year, through her work with Bread of Life at Alameda Park, Ms. Azzarello, a 20-year-old from Sammamish, Wash.,, has reconnected with the couple. They have gotten linked with a caseworker and found more stable housing and temp jobs with interviews lined up.
In an interview Thursday ahead of the Alameda Park event, Ms. Azzarello said she was excited to catch up with her friends and hear about their week.
“There are a lot of wins happening, even if that’s not what the public is necessarily seeing on a day-to-day basis when they’re walking up and down State Street,” she said.
Ms. Azzarello was one of several Westmont College students who spoke during last week’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting about the importance of the Neighborhood Navigation Center held at Alameda Park. She said the atmosphere reduces barriers and any power dynamic that could hinder fellowship and community.
“I know that there has been some frustration with the use of parks — there are a lot of people experiencing homelessness in the parks of Santa Barbara — but people experiencing homelessness are citizens just like anyone else,” Ms. Azzarello said.
“There’s a lot of power in reducing the distance between you and other people,” she added.
Westmont Downtown began less than 10 years ago and offers a wide array of internships for the students who join the program, from Santa Barbara County to Legal Aid of Santa Barbara to the Sansum Diabetes Research Institute and more.
“We like to think of it as preparing students for their first step out of college as professionals, giving them a test of the real world through an internship at an organization that teaches them how to apply their education in a real-world setting and what it means to be a professional in today’s workplace,” Dr. Ostrander said.
Westmont College is a private Christian liberal arts institution nestled on a hill in Montecito. Students can feel removed from the Santa Barbara community, and the Downtown program is an opportunity to change that.
The immersion into Santa Barbara is what attracted Macy Cholometes, 20, to the program. She works with the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission helping to check in guests and providing needed supplies such as bedding or clothing.
Through her internship, Ms. Cholometes said she’s learned how laborious the process can be to find and obtain housing.
“It’s so complex and complicated, it would be daunting to anybody,” she said.
Like others in the program, Ms. Cholometes said she’s especially grateful for the time she has spent getting to know the people she serves and their stories.
“I’ve gotten to break down a lot of barriers and misconceptions that I’ve grown up hearing about people who are experiencing homelessness,” she said. “A lot of times, it’s people who are just like me.”
“Certainly, there is an implicit stigma around the unhoused community, and we don’t often get to breach the barrier that is created by that,” said Ms. Bulow.
The Alameda Park event “provides students a safe place to just meet people who are just people but are in different circumstances than us — and that’s the only dividing factor,” she continued. “Being down there, you realize it’s not actually divisive at all.”
Thus far, the Neighborhood Navigation Centers have provided more than 2,6700 meals to nearly 2,000 people, according to SBACT. More than 200 animals have received care, dozens of case management clients served and hundreds of people have received clothing.
The center is open at Alameda Park on Thursdays from 5:30-7 p.m. and at Carrillo Castillo commuter lot on Tuesdays from 10 am.-1 p.m.