Response to homeless in midst of COVID-19

Caleb Marll, Staff Writer

Nearly three weeks have passed since Governor Gavin Newsom issued an order for all Californians to stay home. The community in Santa Barbara most affected by this order is none other than residents without homes. For many, the COVID-19 crisis has brought a myriad of unprecedented challenges. Social distancing recommendations have forced shelters to decrease bed availability and rethink their arrangements. The closure of non-essential businesses has caused many to lose their jobs and miss out on necessary services. Considering that chronic health issues affect more than 36% of the South Coast’s homeless, individuals within the homeless community are more susceptible to the virus itself — both getting it and spreading it.

Even with these challenges, many Santa Barbara organizations have stepped up to the plate. County health officials have recently put together a task force to respond to the needs of the homeless community. One plan is to open three new emergency shelters in Santa Maria, Lompoc, and Santa Barbara. The Santa Maria shelter, located on the Santa Maria High School campus, is the only one that has opened thus far.

Among existing shelters in Santa Barbara, measures are being taken to curb the spread of the disease. Social distancing has forced the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, which can normally provide 200 beds, to rearrange living spaces. Addiction support groups have also encountered difficulties during this time. Some 70 individuals are enrolled in recovery programs at the Mission, but they cannot meet in groups. On the Eastside, the PATH shelter has long had beds set aside for those needing medical attention. However, the isolation needed to curb the spread of the coronavirus requires space, and this space isn’t available without decreasing the number of shelter beds.

Along with the newest guidelines, Governor Newsom has empowered counties to use hotel and motel rooms to compensate for lost shelter space. Santa Barbara County is seeking to use these tools but has not yet secured rooms, according to a recent article in the Independent.

Many community members and organizations have also sought to provide services for those without homes during this time. One such person is Ken Ralph, who runs the non-profit Showers of Blessing. Ralph was able to provide showers and food to about 30-50 people at Earl Warren Showgrounds on March 24. While it was only scheduled to be a one-time event, Ralph hopes that he will be able to provide these necessities again. The closure of gyms and libraries have left many homeless residents without their usual showering and hygiene facilities. These measures have only increased in importance with the threat of the virus, as proper hygiene can mean the difference between life and death.

The weekly meal program at Alameda Park, which provides food, medical, and other services, has also shut down for the time being. Jeff Shaffer of Santa Barbara Alliance for Community Transformation, who attends the meal share weekly and assists Westmont’s Bread of Life program, says that the sudden lack of resources is challenging enough for people without homes. More harmful, he says, is the lack of human connection and dignity spurred by the pandemic.

Luckily, there has not yet been an outbreak of COVID-19 within the Santa Barbara homeless community. Hopefully, there won’t be one. But to ensure that the proper precautions and resources are in place, the county and other organizations will need to step up to these unprecedented challenges.