Out of Reach: Advocates say high housing costs are driving SB County's increase in homelessness
The annual Point-In-Time count provides a snapshot of homelessness on a single night. And this year’s count for Santa Barbara County shows an increase in people experiencing homelessness, which housing advocates say is largely because of a lack of affordable housing and the pandemic.
In Santa Barbara, people with nowhere else to go often find their way to the Fr. Virgil Cordano Center for a safe, welcoming space during the day.
“In the morning, everybody starts lining up at about 7:30 or 8 o’clock, but we don’t open our doors until 9:00. We greet everybody by name,” Debbie McQuade said.
McQuade is the program director. She said the center opened in 2019 to serve as a drop-in location for the local unhoused population.
They do not provide overnight housing, but they do have laundry machines, computers and outreach programs. They also serve breakfast and lunch.
“Every morning we make somewhere between 10 to 15 dozen eggs and serve it up with beans or hashbrowns or something like that,” McQuade said.
She said many of the people she sees on a regular basis are getting jobs now, and that’s great news — except they still can’t afford or find housing in Santa Barbara.
The number of unhoused individuals counted this year in Santa Barbara County was almost 2,000. That’s about a 4% increase from 2020. The count did not happen in 2021 due to the pandemic.
The increase for the county may seem slight overall, but numbers went up considerably in Santa Maria, Lompoc, and Isla Vista.
No one is more aware of the county’s growing homeless population than Sylvia Barnard, executive director of Good Samaritan Shelter.
“We serve, unduplicated, 3,000 people a year with over 40 different locations,” Barnard said.
Good Samaritan Shelter is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Santa Maria that operates emergency shelters, drug and alcohol programs, and case management services on the Central Coast.
Barnard said the pandemic made congregate living more difficult, and increased the need for housing in an already tight market.
“In the pandemic, housing costs were through the roof and we were already, before the pandemic, below 2% vacancy rate,” she said.
With numbers up and reports of many people living outdoors, her organization now sends Encampment Response Teams to do outreach near freeways and river beds.
She said getting people into a shelter is the first step in the process of transitioning to more permanent housing, but that’s assuming housing is available.
“There isn’t enough affordable housing and there aren’t enough subsidies. Many of the population we serve definitely need a subsidy to be able to survive on their own, in their own housing,” Barnard said.
Modular, portable housing is a new approach to temporary transitional shelters. The single units are easy to install, and advocates say they make sense during the pandemic. They have been used in Lompoc and Isla Vista, and currently in downtown Santa Barbara.
Ed Barber said the temporary modular housing in Isla Vista got him off the streets.
“I was homeless for about 5 years and it was very hard to get any kind of housing except for staying in homeless shelters,” he said.
Barber grew up in Santa Barbara County, but he said a death in the family and strained relations with other relatives left him without housing and not enough money to afford rent.
He said he chose to live outdoors – moving between Santa Barbara and Isla Vista, rather than in a group shelter for fear of getting sick during the pandemic. Then in February 2021, he and a friend found interim housing in Isla Vista’s modular village.
“They got us into a safe environment where we were taken care of if we needed any kind of [medical] help, and Good Samaritan provided showers and laundry services,” he said.
Barber said he worked closely with a case manager to prepare for living on his own, and then he received a housing voucher for an apartment. He now works at Hedges House of Hope, a shelter in Isla Vista also managed by Good Samaritan.
Like Barber, many unhoused people sleep outside in Isla Vista. Point-In-Time numbers in the area increased from 69 in 2020 to 112 this year. That’s an increase of more than 60%. Spencer Brandt with the Isla Vista Community Services District said many people also live in their cars.
“My understanding is this is the first time in a really long time that the number of people sleeping in vehicles has been so high,” he said.
Brandt is board president of the district and a recent UCSB graduate. He said the Point-In-Time survey showed that, currently, most unhoused people in the county are locals — meaning they list their last permanent address as Santa Barbara County.
He said recent research that connects high housing costs to high rates of homelessness is not a surprise.
“I think what that really shows is what homelessness advocates have been saying loud and clear for a long time, which is that the high cost of housing is what’s driving increases in homelessness in Santa Barbara County,” Brandt said.
He said there’s been no affordable housing built in Isla Vista in the last decade since the elimination of state Redevelopment Funds.
“We have high housing costs and we have very low availability, up to the point where people are cramming more and more people into the same size space to make ends meet just to have a roof over their heads,” he said.
Brandt said establishing another source of funding is greatly needed — and it might happen.
Cities throughout Santa Barbara County are working on their 2023 Housing Element updates as required by the state of California. Shelter and transitional housing needs are included in future projections, as is affordable housing.
At the July 26, 2022, Santa Barbara City Council meeting, city planner Rosie Dyste presented the housing goals drafted for South County.
“The third goal is all about providing housing assistance for folks who need it. And this specific program is to create an affordable housing trust fund that’s envisioned as a one-stop shop for any kind of funding that we take in that could be then handed out to nonprofits to build affordable housing,” Dyste said.
Housing Element updates must be finalized by early 2023 outlining regional housing goals and priorities for the next several years.
As we wrap up this series, it’s fair to say that housing is out of reach in Santa Barbara County for most income levels and it will take some time to correct with new building and policy updates needed. But with added pressure from the state, local agencies are motivated to find solutions to the housing crisis.
Lisa Plowman is director of planning and development for the County of Santa Barbara. We heard from her earlier in the series about the county’s great need for more housing. She said the fabric of the community depends on finding solutions for people at all income levels.
“It’s really important that we, as public servants, find ways to provide housing particularly for people in significant need,” she said.
With homelessness on the rise and the high cost of rent affecting families and the local workforce, it’s clear housing is on everyone’s mind in Santa Barbara County. If you live or work in the region, this affects you, and you can help to find solutions by participating in the Housing Element update process happening throughout the year.
Out of Reach is made possible by a grant from the Sunflower Foundation. Senior editor Marisa Waddell and editor Benjamin Purper edited this story.