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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on February 6th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 48 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 48

On common ground

A Sun writer shares her experience volunteering for Common Ground Santa Barbara County's vulnerability survey

BY AMY ASMAN

I am not a morning person. Well, at least not an early morning person. If I have to get up before 7 a.m., I’m a grump and a half (just ask my co-workers, or better yet, ask my husband). So when my alarm clock went off at 5 a.m. on Jan. 23, I naturally questioned why I chose to leave my warm, comfortable bed to help conduct the Common Ground Santa Barbara County vulnerability index survey.


Follow the data
According to Rob Fredericks, co-leader of Common Ground Santa Barbara County, the data from the vulnerability survey will be compiled into a database and used to create a list of the county’s top 100 most vulnerable residents.

The required data will go to the U.S. Department of Housing and Development in order to qualify the county for federal funding.

Then a multi-disciplinary group of local health-care and housing professionals will work together to find each person or family on that list a home.

“We have Go To Meetings every week where we look at the list and say, ‘OK, here’s this person. Who has contact with him? Who has housing?” Fredericks said.

So far the process has worked.

“We just need to find more housing opportunities. That’s one of the biggest stumbling blocks,” he said. “Because the rental market is so expensive in this county we need to get rental subsidies, but there is a finite amount of those available. We’re trying to work with the private land lords to get more below-market rentals.”

The answer is something even my sleep-addled brain could understand: The work Common Ground does for our community is, simply put, amazing.

Common Ground, in collaboration with local and national organizations, recruits volunteers to survey the county’s most vulnerable residents, namely, those who are living on the streets. The confidential information from the survey—individual medical and housing history, military service, etc.—is compiled into a database that lists people based on who is in the most need. With that data in hand, a response team goes out to find each person and connect him or her to housing resources and other services.

And the survey is saving lives. At the training session I attended prior to volunteering at Church for Life in Santa Maria, Dr. David Lennon with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department revealed that the survey and outreach have helped reduce the number of homeless deaths from 40 people in 2009 to 30 people in 2011. Officials are still going over the number of deaths for 2012, but they expect it to be even fewer than in years past. The last time volunteers interviewed people on the streets in 2011, 119 people were given permanent homes, including 25 families.

In one of the training videos provided by the national organization 100,000 Homes Campaign, which seeks to house 100,000 people by the summer of 2014, a 50-year-old man named Rodney described what the survey meant to him: “You never really realize how many good people are out there. Ending homelessness is a real possibility in every community.”

After he said this, a woman in the Santa Maria audience threw her arms up in the air and shouted, “Wooo! Yes!”

Saving lives is certainly something to be excited about.

Asking questions, getting help

On the mornings of Jan. 22 and 23, hundreds of volunteers crawled out of bed, dressed themselves in various layers of warm clothing, and made their way to one of Common Ground’s logistic centers.

As I drove to the Good Samaritan Services offices on Miller Street, the sky just beginning to lighten, I marveled at the city’s changed personality. The streets were eerily quiet; except for a handful of cars and the occasional fieldworker walking to his car, a mini cooler in tow, I was alone.

At the logistic center, I was teamed up with three other volunteers who weren’t media-shy. A little before 7 a.m., Susan, Nellie, Hillary, and I piled into Susan’s black Honda and started cruising for people who appeared to be down on their luck. Because of the sheer size of Santa Maria, every team was given specific areas to visit.

We parked at a large shopping center in the middle of town and split into twos. Susan and Nellie walked north toward a woman with a sign that read “Jesus loves you.” Hillary and I walked the opposite way after a man we had seen by the Dumpster.

I learned that the surveying process can be a little awkward when the person you’re interviewing isn’t obviously homeless. How do you ask a person if he or she is homeless? Granted, being down on your luck is nothing to be ashamed of, but most people don’t like being targeted for appearing homeless.

Hillary and I followed the blue-sweat-shirted man into an empty panaderia that smelled absolutely heavenly. A young man came to the counter, and I asked him in hideously broken Spanish if he’d seen “a man in a blue blouse.” He called into the kitchen and the well-dressed mystery man appeared. After a short conversation—this one in English, thank the stars—we learned that he was the bakery’s janitor.

As I suspected, there’s no obvious way to tell if a person is homeless. The stereotypes—such as being in the vicinity of a Dumpster, or the incredibly derogatory “dirty, drunk, and crazy”—do not apply. That’s the beauty of what Common Ground is doing; on top of saving lives, the organization’s goal is to help dispel the myths of homelessness and to build more empathetic relationships in our community.

Nellie and Susan’s quest proved to be more successful: They talked to a 26-year-old woman named Julie* who has been homeless off and on since 2006.

“I first became homeless due to the fact that I lost my job because of the recession,” Julie told me after the survey is completed. “And in that, I lost my home that I was renting when I was 18, and I had to quit going to college when I only had five classes left here at Santa Barbara Business College to get my associate’s degree. I didn’t have the gas to get here and I had to drop out. I lost my home and I lost everything due to this unfortunate event.”

She said due to the stress of being forced onto the streets, she experienced a psychotic break and “got introduced to drugs very heavily.”

As a result of the drug use, some abusive relationships, and, she admits, her own choices, Julie lost custody of three of her four children.

“I haven’t worked since then due to my depression and anxiety,” she said, adding that she’s also struggled to find a good rehab program.

Now she lives on the streets. From 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. each day, she sits on the curb, holding her “Jesus loves you” sign.

While we’re talking, a woman in medical scrubs approaches Julie to give her a $5 bill. The two hug and exchange some words of encouragement and gratitude.

“Do you know her?” I later asked.

“No, I don’t know her,” Julie answered. “That’s what I was saying; people are really nice to me. Somebody else gave me a $20 bill this morning.”

Another silver lining in Julie’s world is her friendship with a local Santa Maria resident named Jennifer*, who will sit with her all day on the curb collecting money and sometimes lets Julie sleep in her truck or at her house.

“I would be homeless if I didn’t have my parents so I know how it is,” Jennifer told me. “I’m 35 and I’m disabled. I can’t ever work again because I slipped and fell at work. I’m on SSI. I’d be screwed if I didn’t have my parents.”

When asked if there’s anything she’d like Sun readers to know, Jennifer said. “We need more awareness of the situation and more help for people, especially young people.”

Shelter from the storm

After talking to Julie and Jennifer, my team and I decided to head to the south part of town. We drove from shopping center to shopping center and up and down side streets, looking for people to survey.

More than an hour went by and we couldn’t find anyone to interview, so we decided to head back to the logistic center to see if there was anything else we could do.

At the center I started talking to Jay Baker, one of the head volunteers who, in 2011, was actually one of the people surveyed on the streets. Thanks to some help from Good Sam employees, Baker has a place to live and receives benefits from the Veterans Administration.

He explained why my team couldn’t find anyone to talk to—an approaching rainstorm.

“When the rain comes, it’s hard on them. If their bedding gets wet, they’ll suffer for days. Even if the weather clears up, if their bedding gets wet in these temperatures, they’ll suffer for it,” he said. “So they’re out there plasticking up their bedding right now.”

The homeless community is a tight-knit community, he said, so “they’re checking in with each other” to make sure everyone has a place to take shelter.

“They’ll post one person ... over by the recycle machine where they go recycle for a few dollars. The recycling takes a shock, too, because they can’t be looking for aluminum in the rain. They’d be wet head to toe if they got into a Dumpster and started going through the trash while it’s raining.”

He said one thing people on the streets learn early on is to swallow their pride and to submit to humility.

“If somebody sees you with a shopping cart that’s packed with your bedding, all pretences of pride or humility are blown. You’re a walking pathology and you know it,” Baker explained. “They get used to it.
It’s sad to say but they get used to it. The looks of pity, the looks of disdain; sometimes you get the loud comments about the poor life choices they probably made to get them there.”

A key component of Baker’s mission as a volunteer is to bridge the gap between the people living on the streets and the community at large.

 “We’re still looking for the cause, for the why [people are homeless],” he said. “I think we should be looking for the ‘what nows?’ There are a thousand stories; every person out there has a story behind them; some are tragic, some can sound pretty mundane. Some of them are life-altering experiences.”

One such experience happened on Jan. 23 when a team of volunteers met a man named Greg*.

 “He told us he had been looking forward to seeing us around. He really opened up to us. He said he was having some trouble with anxiety and depression,” a volunteer from Church for Life told me at the logistic center. “He wasn’t making as much money this year. He was barely making enough for a cup of coffee. So he had stopped eating and he wasn’t taking care of himself.”

The group texted Kirsten Cahoon, the shelter manager at Good Sam and one of the Common Ground organizers, to ask if she could offer some resources to Greg, who admitted to having thoughts of suicide.

Cahoon dispatched an outreach group to the area where Greg was hanging out. They were able to get him admitted to North County CARES, a health center for people in crisis, that day.

“He was pretty happy after the survey because we
gave him a gift card and he was like, ‘I can eat!’ He was really hungry. He kept saying, ‘God bless you!’” the volunteer said.

She said the experience made her want to reach out to people in need more often and to not be as judgmental of their circumstances.

“I think for a long time I never wanted to offend anybody by going up to them or to dig too deep or [get too] personal,” she said. “But they just want to talk.”

* Names have been changed.

Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at aasman@santamariasun.com.