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Homeless solutions involve consistent efforts and priority populations in Santa Barbara County

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - New efforts to house the homeless in Santa Barbara County are showing good returns, however the number of homeless people has gone up in the last year.

A special meeting held by the Board of Supervisors looked at the county's response to the problem.

Chairman and 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson said the county needs to "work better to address these needs," when it comes to ending homelessness in certain cases including veterans, youth and families.

A county report showed, COVID-19 has furthered the problem of homelessness for many people.

"Many resources are one-time resources" said Kimberlee Albers, Homeless Assistance Program Manager. She said there is a critical need to have ongoing services.

The annual "Point in Time" homeless count did not take place this year. Albers says however, research shows the homeless shelter population has gone down 20 percent in the last year. The projected number of unsheltered people for this year however, is 1,662.

The report shows in 2020, 3,458 adults and 768 children experienced homelessness in some form.

79 percent surveyed said they became homeless while they were in Santa Barbara County.

In Isla Vista recently 20 tiny homes were built and some of the homeless in a nearby park, living in tents, and who qualified, were moved in as part of a process to give them services. Eventually an opportunity to move into more permanent low income housing could be in their future. It also brought a problem area encampment under control nearby which was viewed as a health and safety hazard by fire inspectors.

Moving people into new housing is not a smooth path. Outreach workers say they are met with resistance until trust is built. In some cases it "takes multiple visits," said Albers.

Supervisor Das Williams said having a site in Isla Vista for a new homeless shelter solution involved the Community Services Board and the Parks and Recreation District. For other areas, he asked, "Is that the missing ingredient?"

Albers also said "we were under a public health emergency" at the time, which moved the plan forward faster.

The cost is $1-million dollars for six months in the new Isla Vista site.

Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said inspectors have gone into 21 encampments for inspections in the last year. He also said there is a county fire chiefs group that discuss homeless camps and fire risks. They are looking for common, regional solutions from Santa Maria to Carpinteria. The chiefs did not want to work with a jurisdiction to move out a problem camp, only to have it go to an adjacent city of park district.

Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said in addition to the county's response other agencies have to be involved as well. "There doesn't seem to much of a Caltrans response," he said.

The two most popular encampments, according to the county, are the Union Pacific and CalTrans right of way area.

Santa Barbara County Counsel Michael Ghizzoni pointed out laws to protect the homeless from being moved from their sleeping areas such as parks and make shift camps, including a ruling that prevents actions if there's no adequate shelters available. He said the threat of jail is not a factor for some of those living on the streets.

Supervisor Das Williams said he doesn't want to "over promise" solutions. "The reality is, what works, is a long plodding hand holding way to get somebody to make that decision," to accept homeless services. "There are limited resources and we don't have a magic bullet to fix it."

Recalling a visit to the Lompoc River Park where hundreds of homeless people have come and gone in recent years, Supervisor Joan Hartmann said she was impressed with the local outreach workers who knew many of the homeless by name.

In her district which includes Isla Vista, she said the camps there were just "too dangerous." Hartmann also said safe parking programs in designated lots work to provide a spot for those living in their cars. Campsites however, are not as reliable during bad weather. "You need a lot of infrastructure," she said, including services.

Hartmann also said many people on the streets are living in pain with medical problems and getting them treatment may be part of the connection that leads to other solutions.

Supervisor Gregg Hart says the county can not give up on the challenge to find supportive housing and low income housing. He says the state used to provide redevelopment funding but that ended about 10 years ago.

He supports focusing on veterans and youth where the county has the expectation of success, with "specific populations in need."

The homeless problem is "not going to go away on our watch," said Supervisor Steve Lavagnino. He supports continued efforts to find more funding sources.

Williams says, "We need to be determined to make progress."

He says the California housing problems and the dislocation due to COVID-19 are threats to safe, affordable housing.

Homeless camps populations change with cold weather, but this winter has been mild and summer is not far away. With that, "They are going to come roaring back, if we don't have better programs," said Williams.

Nelson said some of the camps he saw in Lompoc were among the worst he had seen, and he has traveled to several other countries with religious outreach efforts. He suggested more programs that offer supportive housing but disallow free-style camping in places he referred to as a "lawless drug community." He also said the sites he has seen have abused women and high crime rates.

He favored case management workers for those who are brought in to homeless solution programs to keep the vulnerable on the right course.

Long Range Efforts to resolve Homelessness

This homeless study began last year with Phase 1. That included plans for discussing safe and affordable housing for the unsheltered along with a system to identify tailored support services.

The current update moved the county's efforts forward at a time when officials are hoping for more funding from state and federal sources to homeless related efforts.

The county reports shows:

Phase II also calls out Regional System Level Goals focusing on Priority Populations, New Resources and Performance:

  1. Prioritize ending/dramatically reducing homelessness for specific populations.
    • Immediate (October 2020 – December 2021): End homelessness among veterans
    • Immediate (July 2020 – February 2021): End unsheltered homelessness among youth
    • Short term (2021-2024): Prevent and end homelessness for families
    • Longer term (2021-2026): End homelessness for all other populations including unsheltered and chronically homeless persons
  2. Increase housing inventory dedicated to homeless households and affordability.
  3. Create a culture of diversion and prevention across the homeless response system.
  4. Improve overall homeless system performance.
  5. Achieve Continuum of Care strategies and benchmarks approved in 2019.
    • Increase Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) bed coverages to 85%
    • Address individuals and families at risk of becoming homeless and increase the rate at which individuals and families in emergency shelter, transitional housing, and rapid rehousing exit to permanent housing
    • Re-house families with children within 30 days of becoming homeless
    • Increase the rate at which individuals and families in permanent housing retain their housing or exit to other permanent housing and minimize returns to homelessness
    • Increase access to employment, volunteerism, and community service and promote partnerships and access to employment opportunities with private employers and private employment organizations
    • Increase non-employment cash income (mainstream benefits) and increase access to other cash income/ Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

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John Palminteri

John Palminteri is senior reporter for KEYT NewsChannel 3. To learn more about John, click here.

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