Supervisors propose temporary housing on county property in Santa Maria to address the homelessness crisis

There never seems to be a perfect place for a homeless shelter, Santa Barbara County 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said. 

“There’s no golden choice, it’s not one [location] is better than the other, but I can’t live with the status quo,” Lavagnino told the Sun in February

More recently, Lavagnino said he felt like he had to look at new location options after the controversial proposal to renovate Santa Maria’s Motel 6 to a permanent housing facility failed to move forward due to several disagreements with city officials and public outcry.

click to enlarge Supervisors propose temporary housing on county property in Santa Maria to address the homelessness crisis
A NEW SPACE : The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors proposed a temporary housing facility on county property in Santa Maria, similar to the Dignity Moves location in Santa Barbara (pictured), in order to address the needs of the homeless population in the area.

“My goal is not to build a homeless shelter that draws homeless people to a certain area, my goal is to build something where there’s already a lot of homeless people sleeping behind businesses,” he said. “I want to take them out of that situation and provide an avenue to get them out of the life they are in.” 

Lavagnino and 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson eventually proposed a spot on a county-owned piece of vacant land near the Board of Supervisors’ Santa Maria office to open a 90-unit temporary housing facility with Dignity Moves. It would provide a short-term living facility where people can get adequate medical and mental health attention, and gather any necessary documents or information to eventually find permanent housing, Lavagnino said.

“The reason we came up with the idea is because everybody said, ‘Oh I don’t want it around me,’” he said. “So I said, ‘Put it next to us.’ It’s right next to mental health, it’s next to probation, it’s next to social services.” 

At the proposed Santa Maria location, 30 units will be for people coming out of Dignity Health hospital care, 10 will be for youth ages 18 to 24 who have aged out of the foster care program, and the remaining 50 will be for any Santa Maria Valley residents experiencing homelessness. 

He estimated that the project will cost about $1.2 million to $1.5 million to operate annually with supportive services—which will be funded by American Rescue Plan Act funds from the county, private donations, and Dignity Health. 

“I’m not giving up on these folks at this point,” Lavagnino said. “If you give people a place where they can lay their head, lock their door, and feel safe, that’s when you can start treating them.” 

The proposal is still in its early stages, and county supervisors are supposed to discuss the proposal on Jan. 24 at the Santa Maria hearing room. The county and its partners will also conduct public outreach at the beginning of 2023 with public meetings for neighbors, businesses, and city officials to address concerns and hopefully get the city on board, he said. 

“I’m not guaranteeing it will work, but I have to make tough decisions that I feel are the right things to do,” Lavagnino said. “If it doesn’t, it’s on me to see what’s working elsewhere. I see this working in Santa Barbara right now and [I’m] trying to see why we wouldn’t try this.” 

A little more than 450 people experiencing homelessness reside in Santa Maria, according to the 2022 Homeless Point-In-Time Count, and there’s a need for 133 emergency shelter beds in the area. 

Elizabeth Funk, the founder and CEO of Dignity Moves, said she hopes the project—similar to one currently operating and seeing success in Santa Barbara—will help fill that need. 

“The beautiful thing we did there [in Santa Barbara] is prioritizing people sleeping in the immediate area,” Funk said. “The homelessness in the five-block radius is gone. It’s because Good Sam went to the people on the streets, and that neighborhood gets to benefit, and there’s a visible difference.” 

The homes are made by an LA-based company. She said the steel frames the company uses make them thicker and more durable than structures made by Pallet—another temporary home manufacturing company. Plus, the homes are designed to match Santa Barbara’s aesthetic, with Spanish-style terra cotta arches and furnished with home decor, decks, and an outdoor garden—making it feel less like a shelter and more like a home, she added. 

“If we can build something attractive enough [for people] to come, we have a much higher chance of people resolving their problems and going back into self-sufficiency,” Funk said. 

The community of 35 tiny homes overseen by Good Samaritan Shelter in Santa Barbara functions as a temporary site for people to transition into permanent housing. In three to five years, the homes will move to a new location, and a permanent supportive housing project will take their place, Funk said. 

“This is not intended to be a permanent home, but if we build enough interim housing, it takes pressure off the system and frees the resources to get people into interim housing early,” she said, “and they are much more likely to become self-sufficient.” 

Although no specific data is available at this time, Funk said anecdotally there’s been a reduction in hospital visits and police calls, and some people who lived in the facility moved on to get permanent housing, jobs, and connection to mental health care.

The remaining challenge is changing the community’s perception of adding a homeless shelter to their neighborhoods. 

“It’s going to save money in the long run. It’s well run, it’s dignified. It’s just explaining [the goal] because people’s knee-jerk reaction is ‘no shelter in my neighborhood,’ when you do want this in your neighborhood badly,” she said. 

Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino toured Dignity Moves’ Santa Barbara facility and said she thinks it could be a better option for her city than the Motel 6 proposal. 

“The Motel 6 project was not well thought out at all,” Patino said. “I think this will be an improvement because I think people will be in a contained environment, and they will have services to transition to permanent housing. If that’s the objective, I think it’s a great idea.” 

However, she said, she wants to make sure that the city is involved in future conversations and that the county receives community input before moving forward. 

“I’m going to reserve my opinions until I hear others’ opinions, and I certainly want other members of the council to voice their opinion on this,” Patino said. “We’ll be having more conversations, and it should be collaborative definitely. I think there should be open forums and public outreach so the public gets a chance to speak.”

Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at [email protected].

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