The holiday season can be especially difficult for individuals experiencing homelessness, said Kirsten Cahoon with Good Samaritan Shelter.
“Some of our clients are traumatized by the holidays because of years of abuse or substance use, and they were [exacerbated] during the holidays,” said Cahoon, Good Sam’s director of homeless services. “Some of them don’t have a positive experience around the holidays, and for them, they need a safe space during that time of year and build new memories with a new community.”
Every year, Good Samaritan Shelter hosts a variety of events during the holiday season to bring joy to their clients in shelter services and the unsheltered population of Santa Barbara County. Festivities kick off with the turkey drive, one of Good Sam’s fundraising events that starts on Nov. 14, she said.
In partnership with KCOY, Good Sam gathers turkeys, nonperishable items, and cash donations that will go to the Santa Maria location to help feed the folks in shelter programming for a Thanksgiving meal. Good Sam also has a Lompoc turkey drive where all the proceeds go toward its Lompoc shelter and programming, Cahoon said.
Stepping into the gift-giving season, Good Sam will then host its toy drive on Dec. 19 at the Stowasser Buick GM car dealership to gather toys, which will later be used for Good Sam’s Christmas store, where clients can pick out toys for their children.
“I always think about how tough it would be to be a parent in a homeless shelter and not be able to provide the same thing that housed individuals would be able to provide,” Cahoon said. “Because of where they’re at and the struggles they are enduring, a lot of parents don’t get those opportunities.”
As of Nov. 8, there were 58 children in the Santa Maria shelter and 38 in the Lompoc shelter. Cahoon added that Good Sam works to make the holidays special for children and families by coordinating craft nights, hosting a holiday party, leaving cookies out for Santa, and opening gifts on Christmas morning.
On Dec. 14, the shelter will have a snow day party for the clients to decorate the Christmas trees at both that Santa Maria and Lompoc shelters. As of Nov. 8, Good Sam was looking for a local business to donate snow so the children can see a winter wonderland—often for the first time.
“How can we as a community and agency ensure that our parents get to be a part of creating a positive experience at Christmas? We want to break the cycle of trauma and addiction and homelessness … we don’t want [them] to continue looking at the holidays as something traumatizing,” Cahoon said.
However, participation is always a choice, and clients don’t need to participate in the holiday activities, she added. All shelter programming is hosted in the dining hall, so people who choose not to participate in the festivities can stay in the shelter space.
“They always have a protected space if they choose to not be a part of things,” Cahoon said. “We [make] sure we’re checking in on folks during the holidays more often to see if there are any changes in their mental health, and we can provide them with the services that they need.”
Good Sam works with the Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness to provide mental health services and can make referrals for any needed services or resources, she said.
For the unsheltered population in both Santa Maria and Lompoc, street outreach teams go out to meet individuals where they’re at, build relationships, and conduct assessments to see if they need medical or mental health assistance.
“It’s [about] making sure they know the clients well enough to see changes and be proactive in trying to make sure they get the help as quickly as they need it in our unsheltered population,” Cahoon said. “It’s statistically proven that the holidays are a higher time of overdoses and suicide just because of the trauma of being on the streets during the colder weather and during the holidays.”
Outreach teams are equipped with Narcan—opioid overdose reversing medication—mental health referral services, and warmer clothing to hand out, she said.
While most of the programming is geared toward clients in shelter programming, Good Sam tries to bring goodies and a Christmas meal to its warming centers that will be open as the weather gets colder to “make sure they feel that it’s Christmas as well,” she said.
“Always during this time of year, we’re collecting because we’re activating our warming shelters throughout the entire county; getting and making sure we have enough socks, warm blankets, and sweatshirts for those clients; and if anybody wants to come and provide a meal during the holidays they can touch base,” Cahoon said. “It’s a lot of people to feed—our Santa Maria campus serves about 115 meals a night—but if somebody wanted to come in, that would be greatly appreciated.”
To honor individuals experiencing homelessness who passed away in the last year, Good Sam hosts The Longest Night on Dec. 21 at Santa Maria City Hall, she said.
“That day is the winter solstice, so it’s the longest, coldest night of the year and they chose that to honor people,” Cahoon said.
As Good Sam has expanded its reach and services, running the Dignity Moves shelter in Santa Barbara and the new Hope Village in Santa Maria, Cahoon said there will always be an emphasis on making the holiday season a special and healing time for clients.
“Yes, we’ve been growing by leaps and bounds,” she said, “but as staff it’s one of our biggest focuses to ensure every single client feels the holiday spirit and know[s] that they are cared about and people are thinking about them.”
Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at [email protected].