Even before the spread of COVID-19 caused hundreds and even thousands of Americans to lose jobs or be furloughed, there were still countless people across the country, and Santa Barbara County, who were experiencing homelessness.
Since 1965, the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission has been helping the homeless and addicted in the Santa Barbara community and, with the current pandemic, its mission to help those people not only remains the same but becomes even more important.
“We work with a very vulnerable population and so everything that we’re seeing about COVID-19 only intensifies the concern that we have for people that are already challenged by daily life,” Rolf Geyling, president of the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, told the News-Press.
“As much as we understand the wisdom of sheltering in place, that is very hard to do if you have none of the former, if you’re not sheltered to begin with.”
One of Mr. Geyling’s concerns regards the fact that many places that have offered help to those who experience homelessness have been forced to “curtail operations or even suspend them completely.”
Therefore, if the shelter-in-place mandate were to continue for a few more months, it’s possible that some local community members, who have already lost their paycheck, would then lose their current living situation.
Places like the Rescue Mission have provided beds for these types of people for over 50 years, but right now, as they sit at capacity, they realize that they can still try to provide help in a number of ways.
For example, currently the Rescue Mission is feeding about 60 to 75 more meals a day to provide support, according to Mr. Geyling.
Even if they can’t offer a bed, the Rescue Mission has also always made it a point to offer hygienic options.
People can still come in to take a shower and the Rescue Mission has even added hand washing stations to give people the opportunity to continually keep their hands clean.
“I think foremost, we need to realize that we have to do everything we can to keep the apparatus in place to help people and realize our capacities will always be somewhat limited,” Mr. Geyling said.
The biggest worry for Mr. Geyling, however, is a bit deeper than what is just on the surface.
“What concerns me more than anything is that there’s already a sense of disenfranchisement for people who are homeless and one of the natural realities of social distancing is people that we’re trying to help bring back into the fabric of our community are being kept at arm’s length,” Mr. Geyling said.
With social distancing in place, the Rescue Mission has added protocols to make sure it is meeting the standards. For example, in the dining hall, they have added special tables to keep people 6 feet apart.
“It’s just heartbreaking to me that there is an added reason to keep people separate from each other,” Mr. Geyling said.
“But, what we are trying to communicate to people is that we are just trying to make sure people are not getting ill.”
Mr. Geyling added that as a shelter, they typically are on high alert during flu and cold season so they are adapting to everything as best as they can.
“We have (tuberculosis) protocols in place so our staff is always listening for different respiratory issues or coughing and sneezing and things like that. We’re always pretty vigilant about it, but obviously even more so now because we’re not just talking about organizations like ours being overtaxed, but the healthcare system being overtaxed,” Mr. Geyling said.
Other things the Rescue Mission has done is being more vigilant about keeping everything as clean as they can for those they help. They have even started using disposable kitchenware so that they have more time to clean other parts of the Rescue Mission and not have to worry about the large influx of dishes.
Mr. Geyling also said he is very thankful for the generous donors who continue to support the Rescue Mission, especially as they continue to keep their doors open.
“We are definitely concerned and I could see a financial impact, but that’s why we try to plan well. Part of our mission is we make commitments to vulnerable people and so part of that is saying that our doors are going to be open tonight and they will be open six months from now,” Mr. Geyling said.
Being completely reliant on donors from the community, Mr. Geyling added that the Rescue Mission is a reflection of the generosity of Santa Barbara.
“We can only turn on the lights because donors give us a dollar. We are the hands and feet of our community and the compassion of our community. That’s a pretty important mission and something that we don’t take for granted,” Mr. Geyling said.
Finally, Mr. Geyling also thanked his staff for providing the help that they have over the past few weeks and the help they will continue to provide. He said that about two-thirds of his staff are graduates from the Rescue Mission program, which means they know how difficult the road is and how important they are to helping.
“What’s amazing to me is that the people go so far beyond anything that their jobs would require and that’s extremely inspirational,” Mr. Geyling said.
“Anytime you get involved with vulnerable people like we do there is a cost involved and in some respects, there’s a risk involved and the risk has never really been higher.
“This is scary stuff, we are talking about illnesses, but on the other hand, I think our commitment as a staff and as a team is even despite the risks to be wise but also not let that stop us from showing human compassion because people are suffering and we try to alleviate that.”