Tuesday, April 13, 2021     Volume: 22, Issue: 6

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on February 23rd, 2021, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 52 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 52

County approves second phase of plan to address homelessness

By Kasey Bubnash

A recent conversation regarding Santa Barbara County’s efforts to address homelessness repeatedly came back to the area’s lack of affordable housing and its struggles to keep up with growing homeless encampments. 

At a special meeting on Feb. 23, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the second phase of its Community Action Plan to Address Homelessness, which outlines the county’s ongoing and possible future strategies aimed at improving its homeless prevention and outreach efforts. It’s a complicated issue that county staff say has only been compounded by COVID-19 and the resulting economic downfall.

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the second phase of its Community Action Plan to Address Homelessness, which outlines strategies to improve homeless prevention and outreach across the county, including in Lompoc, which has large homeless encampments in the Santa Ynez riverbed.

“COVID-19 has further limited access to food, restrooms, and shelter,” Santa Barbara County Homeless Assistance Program Manager Kimberlee Albers said during a presentation at the Feb. 23 meeting. “Yet as we’ll see on the next slide, the unsheltered population is increasing. The number of encampments, the amount of belongings in encampments, the risks and negative impacts of the person living in an encampment and the surrounding community are growing, and the recent increases in resources are one-time resources, often with quick expenditure deadlines and prescribed requirements. There’s a critical need for reliable ongoing funding to address the housing crisis.” 

The county, Albers said, was able to use one-time funding related to COVID-19 response efforts to find 585 permanent housing placements for people experiencing homelessness, create 55 new permanent housing units, and provide 20,698 temporary shelter bed nights through Project Roomkey and the shelter at Santa Maria High School. Although Albers said access to more reliable funding is still uncertain, county staff learned a lot of lessons throughout the COVID-19 surge in funding for homeless services. Shelter expansions, she said, must be matched with more permanent housing solutions and support services. It often takes multiple sources and extensive trust-building efforts to be successful in a single housing placement. At the same time, she said growing service provider staffing has been challenging, and many posted jobs in that field go unfilled or have high rates of turnover. 

So through the second phase of the action plan, the county hopes to increase access to affordable housing, deliver tailored support services using best practices, and strengthen systems aimed at helping people obtain and maintain housing, according to Dinah Lockhart, deputy director of the county’s Housing and Community Development Division. To achieve those goals, Lockhart said the county needs to intensify its prevention efforts geared toward those at risk of becoming homeless, identify sites for additional shelter programs, find and break down barriers to the county’s services, and develop a coordinated countywide response to homeless encampments. 

All of that takes funding, however, and Lockhart said the Community Action Plan to Address Homelessness is at its core an effort to increase the pool of funding sources available to the county. A number of such sources require homeless data and analysis as a condition for funding, and the first phase the Community Action Plan was developed in 2018 and adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 2019 in an effort to meet those obligations. 

Although not all board members agreed on how to solve the issue of homelessness, they all said the Community Action Plan is a good place to start and an even better way to ensure that the entire county is on the same page. 

Supervisors Gregg Hart and Steve Lavagnino both mentioned their longtime struggles to balance the needs of those experiencing homelessness with the concerns of those living near homeless encampments, shelters, or affordable housing units. All supervisors said the underlying issue of a lack of housing in the area needs to be prioritized. 

“We have tons of people that come and tell us that they’re affected by homelessness, they want to see us address the issue,” Lavagnino said at the meeting. “But then, especially in some districts, you talk about an affordable housing project and we fill the room up with people that say, ‘We can’t do that here, I don’t want to do it here, it’s going to drive down housing prices.’ And so we all have to sacrifice a little bit to make this a better place.” 

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