The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved more than $1.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to be allocated for the advancement of homeless encampment outreach in the county during its regular meeting Tuesday.
This funding will help to bolster the county’s homeless encampment outreach strategy, which aims to resolve 45 encampments located on county property over the next three years and provide at least 60% of persons living in encampments with some form of alternative shelter.
The move to address homeless encampments comes after the county witnessed a 37% increase in the county’s unsheltered population between 2017 and 2020, the county’s Homeless Assistance Program Manager Kimberlee Albers told supervisors on Tuesday. This population increase has led to more than 100 encampment locations across the county and was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Ms. Albers.
To address encampments that are located specifically on property owned by the county, officials are spearheading an effort to promote outreach and move members of the unsheltered population into more permanent housing. A key component of this response is the deployment of an Encampment Response Team.
The Encampment Response Team is composed of members from the Public Health Department, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the Sheriff’s Office, representatives from Community Services and a homeless service provider. This team would be led by an Encampment Response Coordinator, which is a new position that will be funded by a portion of the ARPA funds.
This multi-departmental team would be responsible for conducting site visits and outreach in encampments that are currently set up on county property. The team would respond to encampment reports and assess each site for potential danger to life and property, proximity to residences, the potential impact on the environment and water quality, its impact on public access and other risks like criminal activity or disruptive behavior.
Following the assessment, the team would then coordinate a response and make a plan to deploy interventions. These interventions include providing information on homeless services and case management, enacting temporary health and safety measures (like traffic barriers or portable toilets), conducting a scheduled collection of debris or trash, and initiating closure or removal of the encampment.
Officials underscored the importance of having shelter options available for unsheltered individuals, telling supervisors that adequate shelter availability must be achieved in order to close encampments. Representatives also highlighted the importance of trust-building among the unsheltered population, saying that consistent contact is key for moving someone from the streets into a shelter.
“Resolving encampments requires a coordinated vision backed by intense one-on-one engagement and increased investment in shelter and housing,” Ms. Albers said.
In addition to the Encampment Response Team, Ms. Albers outlined additional strategies to address encampments during the board’s meeting on Tuesday. These strategies include increasing access to shelter, leveraging long-term rental subsidies, creating new permanent housing units, conducting robust outreach and sustaining adequate funding sources.
Ms. Albers told supervisors that increasing access to housing is a key part of resolving encampments. To increase the number of beds available, the county has added a new shelter in Isla Vista and opened pallet shelters in Lompoc. A proposed, interim housing project championed by advocates from DignityMoves is also underway in Santa Barbara.
In addition to these, the county is also hoping to add 100 additional beds through the state’s Homekey program.
The Isla Vista, Lopmoc and Santa Barbara-based projects are funded by a one-time state grant at this time, but would require about $4.9 million in funding over the next two years, Ms. Albers told supervisors.
Overall, the Community Services Department estimates that an investment of $6.5 million is needed to increase access to shelter and about $7.2 million is needed for robust outreach and engagement.
Following the presentation, Supervisor Gregg Hart dubbed the county’s efforts to address encampments as “bold action to change lives.” Mr. Hart acknowledged that while the solutions are expensive and will take time, addressing encampments benefits the unsheltered population and the community at large.
“We need to treat people with dignity and compassion,” Mr. Hart said. “They’re human beings who have found themselves in a tough situation, and we know what we need to do to get them housed, we just need the resources and the political will to do it.”
“We need to recognize that it takes time to build trust with people,” he later added. “We can’t just roll in and clean up because that’s just displacing. But at the same time, we’re not being passive here — we’re engaging, we’re doing the work that needs to be done to build a path that ends up in success, not just displacement.”
Supervisor Das Williams echoed this same sentiment in his comments, encouraging community members to step forward and allow the county to utilize open lots for temporary shelter.
“You can’t end encampments without a place to go,” Mr. Williams said.
Of the $1.4 million in ARPA funding allocated to encampment response, $160,000 will be used to pay an Encampment Response Coordinator, $375,000 will be used for encampment response sanitization services, $100,000 will be used for storage of personal property and contractor access to the property, $10,000 will be used to pay for encampment mapping software, $437,000 will be used to pay 10 street outreaching housing navigators and $400,000 will be allocated for improvements to the Garden Street Flag Lot Site.