Santa Barbara County officials are moving forward with their plan to address homelessness.
During a special meeting of the Board of Supervisors Tuesday, officials motioned to approve the adoption of a Phase II Community Action Plan to Assess Homelessness, which establishes targeted goals and strategies for ending homelessness in Santa Barbara County.
The Phase II plan identifies key actions to address homelessness in the county through five strategies, which includes increasing access to safe and affordable housing, delivering tailored supportive services, building a collective action plan, strengthening support systems and building provider capacity to address the needs of specific populations.
The plan sets targeted goals for ending homelessness among specific populations, like homeless youth, veterans and families.
By December 2021, Community Services is aiming to end homelessness among veterans. In a 100-day challenge to end veteran homelessness, officials were able to permanently house 46 of the 210 homeless veterans in Santa Barbara County.
“Ending homelessness among veterans is an achievable, system-level goal,” Dinah Lockhart, deputy director of housing and community development division, said Tuesday. She noted that though the department may have been shy of the 100-day goal to house 75 veterans, officials are “optimistic they will reach that goal even if it takes longer than 100 days.”
The adoption of the Phase II plan comes at a time when the population of unsheltered persons is rising in Santa Barbara County. This, in part, is due to a decrease in shelter capacity during the pandemic, Kimberlee Albers, homeless assistant program manager for the county’s Community Services Department said Tuesday. In order to comply with social distancing and COVID-19 restrictions, many shelters in the area were forced to decrease capacity to provide adequate space for congregants to stay apart.
The county will usually conduct a Point-in-Time count annually, but due to the pandemic, the Community Services Department did not conduct a physical count this year. Instead, the county used data systems and previous point in time counts to estimate the population of unsheltered persons, which they determined is around 1,662 individuals.
The county was able to conduct a count of sheltered peoples in January, and Ms. Albers said about 407 individuals were sheltered in long-term facilities, while 126 were being housed in temporary shelters.
A number of unsheltered individuals in the county live in encampments under bridges, near creeks or outside of neighborhoods. The large population of encamped individuals is an area of concern for all districts, the supervisors said Tuesday.
“It baffles me that we allow this kind of suffering so close to where we sleep at night,” said Bob Nelson, board chair and 4th District supervisor.
One of the main roadblocks to ending homelessness in the county is the lack of affordable housing currently available, officials said. According to Ms. Lockhart, “there is not currently enough affordable and permanent supportive housing to meet the need to permanently address homelessness.” Despite the increase in temporary beds and permanent residences in the past 10 years, there is just not enough available to meet the current need, Ms. Lockhart said.
In response to this, the supervisors said Tuesday they would begin to search for places in their respective districts where additional housing can be built in the coming months and years to address the shortage. First District Supervisor Das Williams said his area already has two sites mapped out.
“Let’s use them,” he said.
Though building more housing would provide a solution to part of the homelessness issue in the county, Public Defender Tracy Macuga said during Tuesday’s meeting it is not as simple as “if you build it, they will come,” referencing the movie “Field of Dreams.”
Instead, Ms. Macuga said, it often takes multiple instances of repeated contact with homeless individuals before they are willing to accept services.
Ms. Albers echoed a similar sentiment during her presentation, noting that it can take 14 visits or contacts before a homeless individual is willing to be enrolled as a client.
Within the county, the multi-disciplinary team spearheads outreach among chronically homeless individuals, aiming to make consistent contact and alert them of services and housing solutions.
Currently, outreach is being conducted in Isla Vista, Butterfly Beach, East Beach, Goleta Beach, the Milpas Street corridor, encampments in Lompoc and various sites across Santa Maria. From June through December 2020, the team provided outreach to 90 unsheltered individuals and sheltered 29 of them.
“It’s really taking consistent interaction,” Ms. Albers said. “I think what we’re hearing from providers is even when they’re offering these new rapid rehousing and permanent supportive services we have, people are resistant. They feel very failed by the system multiple times.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, the board also heard from Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig for an update on transient-related emergency services dispatched in 2020. Last year, the fire department inspected 21 encampments and currently conducts weekly fire inspections at the Isla Vista Pallet Project, a collection of small temporary shelters near the People’s Park safe sleeping area.
Moving forward, key actions in the Phase II plan for the next six months include identifying sites for additional shelter programs, increasing prevention programs for those at-risk of homelessness and ensuring a region-wide adoption and commitment to the plan.