Transition House has been operating in Santa Barbara for more than 28 years — since local churches, looking for a way to offer services to the homeless, started setting up cots in their parish halls in the early 1980s.
On March 1, 1985, Trinity Episcopal Church was the first to open its doors. First United Methodist and First Presbyterian churches were the second and third shelter locations, providing food, shelter and volunteers to staff the program. The response was overwhelming: 177 people came to find shelter during the first month of operations, and Transition House was soon born.
Throughout its history, Transition House has struggled with many misperceptions about the services it offers, the people it serves, and even the way in which services are provided.
Many residents think Transition House is simply a homeless shelter. While a shelter is a significant part of the operations, it is only one part of a three-phase program. Some believe that all homeless people are served. But Transition House only serves families with children. In fact, more than 60 percent of Transition House residents are children under the age of 18, and families must have children to receive any services from the organization.
One of the most serious misperceptions is that Transition House, through providing services to the homeless, draws homeless people into Santa Barbara from other cities. The fact is that more than 93 percent of all families served come directly from the greater Santa Barbara area, and more than 97 percent of all families who apply to enter the McCune Family Shelter at Transition House are from southern Santa Barbara County.
Some people believe that the homeless families Transition House serves are homeless because they have made bad decisions, are irresponsible or are drug addicts. While there are many, many reasons why people can become homeless, in my personal experience it is almost always due to financial problems that arose out of circumstances beyond the family’s control. Many of the families who come to Transition House have working parents, and nearly a quarter are college graduates. Some are working two or more jobs, but have struggled due to divorce, medical bills, serious illness and many other issues that are — again — beyond their control.
What is most impressive about Transition House is its success rate — more than 70 percent of all families served return to permanent housing after completing the shelter phase of the program. The reason for this impressive success rate is, in part, due to the three-phase structure of their program. Before accepting a family, Transition House staff screens the family members; there are no drugs or alcohol allowed at Transition House, and no one is allowed to enter or live in the shelter when they are using drugs or alcohol. Potential candidates for the program are required to work diligently to improve their situation, including saving a significant portion of their income.
Once accepted into the first phase, which is the Shelter, each family works with a case manager to address the issues that caused their homelessness. Parents are offered classes in a wide array of key topics, including parenting, career development workshops that teach successful interviewing skills, English language courses and computer skills classes. Every evening, homework help volunteers come in to work with the children. The children have access to art supplies and participate in art projects, and also have access to Transition House’s extensive book library. Three days each week, Transition House offers its “TLC” program — Technology and Literacy for Children — to promote a love of reading for grammar school-aged children.
Once the family has been stabilized, and has saved enough money, some return to permanent housing outside of Transition House, while others advance to phase two, which is called the Fire House — a property owned by Transition House where the families share some amenities but have their own living space and pay a reduced rent while they continue to save. The family continues to work with their case manager while living at Fire House, eventually saving enough to move into phase three: 34 apartments owned by Transition House. While continuing to pay rent that is somewhat below-market, families continue working with their case manager, saving more money and addressing the issues that caused their homelessness. When the family is fully self-sufficient, they graduate from the program and secure permanent housing at market rates. Families leave Transition House confident, comforted, proud and self-sufficient, ready to begin the rest of their lives together, as a family.
While Transition House also offers a variety of other important services, such as its Homelessness Prevention Program (HPP), providing assistance to families with children who are at risk of becoming homeless before they lose their home (in 2010 more than 200 families avoided homelessness as a direct result of the HPP program), the three-phase program described above is the core of the services provided, week in and week out, at Transition House.
I have been privileged to serve on the Transition House board for more than eight years. In that time, and certainly throughout the history of the organization, misperceptions about the organization, the services it provides, and the people it serves, have been a constant obstacle.
Having just completed the Mom’s Project earlier this year, which has provided eight additional housing units and a 25-baby infant-care center, Transition House is more prepared than ever to sustain the fight to end family homelessness in Santa Barbara, but it can’t do it alone! As always, Transition House depends on the efforts and financial support of the community. With more than 1,200 volunteers, Transition House enjoys strong support; however, funding is always a challenge. The hope of the board and staff of Transition House is that by dispelling these misperceptions more of our community members will understand the substantial positive impact that the organization has, not only on the lives of the families and in particular the children we serve, but also on the community itself.