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Tearful plea as help for the homeless faces critical shortfall during virus crisis

Homeless eats McDonalds
John Palminteri
Street outreach services to the homeless in and around Santa Barbara have been scaled back during the virus crisis. (Photo: John Palminteri)
Homeless on lawn
John Palminteri
Street outreach services to the homeless in and around Santa Barbara have been scaled back during the virus crisis. (Photo: John Palminteri)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -  A homeless man named Gerard Pepe was in tears this week in Santa Barbara, not knowing what's going to happen to him and those living on the streets during the uncertain coronavirus crisis.

He sat on his backpack in front of McDonald's eating a McMuffin sandwich.
Those who are without a roof over their heads have been in the rain, frigid temperatures and even sunshine this week. They don't always have a place to hunker down when they need to. Some prefer the outside over the shelters that are open for them, in part because of the rules for health and safety.

What they do know is there is a serious coronavirus going around and the most vulnerable are at serious risk.

Thursday night at the "last meal" for a while, according to volunteers at Alameda Park, those looking for dinner found out some of their regular services will be eliminated until the virus is controlled.

That includes medical outreach teams, portable showers and meals that are brought to them in certain locations on a weekly schedule.

Earlier in the week, Pepe said he had already been to City Hall and asked questions to Mayor Cathy Murillo seeking help.

He is a recovering alcoholic and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly.

With tears in his eyes, he said he wanted the public to "just acknowledge we are alive. We are not bad people. We are just residentially challenged people."

He said two girls early this week when it rained gave him "a blanket, an umbrella, went into McDonald's and came out with a sausage and egg McMuffin, a coffee and a hash brown."

The Santa Barbara Alliance for Community Transformation (SBACT) has been working to bring partners together to help those in need on the streets, in the bushes along Highway 101 and living in the shadows.

Director of Initiatives Jeff Shaffer said the new health warnings about coronavirus have led to the park meal sharing coming to a temporary halt. Thursday night chicken sandwiches and hamburgers were served along with boxes of nutrition bars. No medical checks took place.

He said, "We hung out for one last time, to explain the situation. We are going to start up again once this passes."

Now, however, if someone on the streets is sick, first responders will likely be called and do an evaluation, then decide the next level of care. Shaffer also hoped AmeriCorps outreach workers would still be involved.

He says various partners are getting together to see if a "day center for a short time" could be put together. "It is being looked at. No site has been chosen." Shaffer hopes state funding would help with the costs during this emergency.

With resources falling off the homeless, he says many agencies will still be talking about how to provide the best services they can.

When it comes to social distancing, Shaffer said, "yes they understand it. This was our last meal and everyone had a good attitude. But everyone also looks forward to it starting up again."

Shaffer encourages the public to support the FoodBank of Santa Barbara County and other agencies that are providing food and services to the most vulnerable population.

Gregory Griffin says he will be sleeping by the "same bush" next to the freeway this week. He said it is sad. "I could see they were sad. That is what they do and they have been doing it for a long time. Vulnerable people depend on these services. Everything has changed. All of these things they are used to are gone."

He said they are completely cut off from their social workers. "The vulnerable are so affected right now, their day-to-day life."
Portable showers he says "are all gone."

The services and shelters for the homeless are not closed and remain staffed including PATH, The Santa Barbara Rescue Mission and the Santa Barbara Salvation Army.

Coronavirus / Health / Local Politics / Politics / Santa Barbara- S County / Santa Maria - North County

John Palminteri

John Palminteri is senior reporter for KEYT NewsChannel 3 and KCOY 12 Central Coast News.