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Santa Barbara’s Ongoing Struggles with Homelessness

The city of Santa Barbara has dealt with the issue of homelessness for a long time. Due to the recent pandemic, the crisis has  only worsened and forced many into a place of uncertainty. This is in part due to high unemployment rates, business closures, and the increasingly small margin for affordable housing within the city. While it may be hard to believe that a city typically defined by its luxury and sheer beauty can be so deeply impacted by homelessness, data confirms that the issue runs deep within Santa Barbara. 

Homelessness rates in Santa Barbara county have been increasing for many years, but the effects of  COVID-19  have worsened the already worrisome situation. According to the annual “Point In Time” count, a volunteer based count meant to identify the sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations within the county, the number of people experiencing homelessness within Santa Barbara County increased between 2011 and 2019 from 1,698 to 1,803. In 2020, directly after the beginning of the pandemic, 1,897 people were experiencing homelessness in the county, the largest amount of that number occurring in the city of Santa Barbara, according to the Santa Barbara County Community Services Department. The majority of homeless were unsheltered at 1,223 people, an 8% increase from 2019. Little access to affordable housing in Santa Barbara has been another major cause of homelessness, as the average price of a house in the city is 1.7 million.  “The Point In Time” count provides evidence of a situation worsened by the pandemic’s lasting consequences. While statistics prove the reality of the homelessness issue, one can only understand the severity of it by hearing the stories of people either working on the front lines of the crisis or of those who have been directly affected. 

There are very few who can better understand the homelessness crisis better than those either working in the community or who have been directly impacted by homelessness. I spoke to Kevin Carroll, the Director of Homeless Guest Services at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission (SBRM), about his experiences working to help homeless people in Santa Barbara County. Carroll has been working with SBRM for three years and with the homeless population for 15 years, and he says the most common themes he sees among people who come to the shelter seeking refuge are financial issues, unstable housing, and mental health issues. Carroll called the pandemic a “game-changer,” and  said, “…you’re already homeless, you’re already experiencing. . .mental health issues, maybe substance abuse issues. . .you can’t find work, and now with Covid you’re definitely not going to find work because businesses are closing. . . So it was a very difficult time.” Carroll said that local governments would need to find a multifaceted solution to the ongoing homeless crisis as “There’s not one solution to one problem with homelessness.” According to Carroll, there are many resources needed within the local homeless community. The biggest of these are “a better pathway to housing. . .Santa Barbara’s super expensive, even for the average bear. To get housing, it’s costly. But imagine someone trying to get an apartment who has limited income and there’s nothing available. . .I would say we need more shelters. Now some people would say that you know the old ‘build a field of dreams and if you build it they’ll come.’ Well, they’re already here, so we need to take care of those folks that are on the streets.” 

  Insight from people working to help Santa Barbara’s homeless population offers information on how our community has been forced to adapt within the pandemic. No one has a greater understanding of the issue than the faces behind Santa Barbara’s homeless crisis.

On Saturday, March 5, SBRM held a graduation ceremony for its residents at the Santa Barbara Community Church. Graduations are held three times a year and celebrate the transformation of people from when they first arrived at the Mission to when they have finished the year-long program. The graduates walked down the aisle of the church while the audience, made up of family and staff members, applauded and cheered. All of the graduates stood up to give thanks to the people who had helped them at SBRM, while two of the graduates went on stage to tell their stories to and through homelessness. One of the people who gave their testimony was a woman who had lived in Sweden, but whose parents couldn’t care for her, so she was sent to Santa Barbara to live with her adopted family. She later graduated from Santa Barbara High School. Her story included domestic abuse, addiction, and an unstable home life. After having to give up custody of her daughters due to drug use, she lived on the streets of Santa Barbara and was subject to continual abuse and violence. While she attempted to go back to work and save money, she was let go and subsequently evicted from the apartment she had managed to find in February of 2021. She was finally driven to SBRM because she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Since completing the one year program at the Mission, she has obtained career options and will begin taking classes at Santa Barbara City College. She ended her testimony by saying, “I may have been lost but I’m found now. I don’t see myself as a victim, but as a survivor.”

The city of Santa Barbara has been plagued by a worsening homeless crisis for many years. Little access to affordable housing, few shelters, and the recent pandemic have all been catalysts for the increasing homeless rate. While the city has a luxurious reputation, the lack of measures taken to address the homeless issue is a major concern for the community. 

Image Credit Mary Moses

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