It’s no secret now that an El Niño is expected to hit the Central Coast—and the preparation work has begun. Counties, cities, and residents are taking steps to protect roads, homes, and businesses from the anticipated storms and flooding. But who is taking action to protect the people who will be most impacted by devastating El Niño weather?
Good Samaritan is one organization looking out for Santa Barbara County’s homeless population. Good Samaritan operates two emergency shelters in Santa Maria and Lompoc, and the nonprofit’s executive director Sylvia Barnard told the Sun that her shelters have been at “overflow” capacity for five years now.
“This year was the first time we had to actually turn people away,” Barnard said.
Santa Maria Emergency Shelter houses 120 beds while the Bridgehouse Shelter in Lompoc houses 90. Shelters have seen an increase in demand as a result of a depressed economy, a 2 percent vacancy rate, and increasing rents. Barnard estimated that Lompoc has a higher homeless rate per capita than Santa Maria.
Barnard said that 80 percent of people that the shelters serve are families, typically where both parents work low-paying, part-time jobs.
“Minimum wage doesn’t cut it,” Barnard said. “In these times, employers don’t want to pay benefits and they are often hiring part-time only.”
When the shelters have to make decisions about who gets a bed, the rule of thumb is women and children first. One critical limitation for emergency shelters that contributes to the bed shortage is a lack of funding.
Santa Barbara County recently announced that it would bring some much-needed financial relief to emergency shelters. The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Oct. 20 approved $250,617 in funding to the Santa Maria Emergency Shelter and the Bridgehouse Shelter for 2015-2016. The Santa Maria Emergency Shelter will get $142,522 of the funds while $108,095 will go to the Bridgehouse Shelter in Lompoc. The county also approved $94,383 to PATH Santa Barbara Emergency Shelter in the city of Santa Barbara.
The dollar amount for the funding was decided based on the number of beds a shelter provided in the previous year, rather than the number it offers for the current year. Bridgehouse Shelter added 34 more emergency beds for this year, and as a result, those beds went unaccounted for while determining funding levels.
Even so, Barnard said that the county’s financial support is “substantial,” and that the amount allocated to Good Samaritan shelter “reflects the fact that we provide the majority of homeless shelter services in Santa Barbara County.”
Looking ahead to the winter, Barnard said she fully anticipates the shelters will see even greater demand. To help accommodate the overflow, Good Samaritan has plans to open “warming centers” for the cold and wet winter nights. Those centers, which will be located at the Salvation Army in Santa Maria and at a local church in Lompoc, could become crucial areas for the homeless families and individuals who can’t find beds at the emergency shelters. With an El Niño forecasted to bring unprecedented bad weather, Barnard said all hands are on deck.
“We’re preparing as much as we can and working with the county and city staff to maximize resources,” Barnard said.
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