Winter can bring deadly consequences for those living on the streets. Even in a place with mild weather such as Santa Barbara, the city’s homeless, especially the old and infirm, are at risk when rains and cold temperatures break through. On Monday, as they have for six years, volunteers with Project Healthy Neighbors were out in force to help the homeless prevent illness and stay safe through the season.
Hundreds of homeless people lined up outside the Casa Esperanza shelter at 816 Cacique St. to receive flu shots, tuberculosis screenings, drug and alcohol counseling and even dental care. More than 700 people and families are expected to benefit from the event this year, and each year has seen an increase in attendees. Free haircuts, shoes and survival backpacks, with essentials such as socks and ponchos, also were handed out.
The event will continue from 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at Casa Esperanza.
A record number of shoes were donated this year from the nonprofit Soles4Souls, shoe company Chinese Laundry and donations gathered by Spenser Wyatt, who asked people to donate shoes at his bar mitzvah instead of bringing gifts. Since the event saw an increase in homeless children last year, children’s backpacks with winter clothing also were given out.
In addition to this week’s event, Casa Esperanza will expand by 100 beds to shelter more people for the winter.
Brenda Morehouse, a resident of Casa, said she understands the importance of the expansion. She was brought into the shelter when winter beds were increased last year, and she has been living there since. After losing her job, her health insurance and struggling to overcome drug and alcohol abuse, she said Casa has been an important respite while she fights to get her old life back.
“It’s very important to have those 100 extra beds,” Morehouse said, adding that she still has many friends on the street she would like to see enter the shelter and get help. Many choose not to, however, because there are rules in the shelter and the lifestyle is more regimented, with chores expected of residents, Morehouse said.
But those who can’t, or won’t, enter the shelter stay on the streets at their own risk. Morehouse said she has seen multiple friends die on the streets during the past two years, including 74-year-old Ruth, who died in September in Lompoc Hospital after struggling with alcohol addiction. Ruth had been placed in a skilled nursing facility because of her health, but she left the facility against medical advice. Morehouse spoke at Ruth’s memorial service, and now she’s working to overcome health issues while her fiance looks for work. She said both are fighting to stay sober and reclaim their lives.
Casa staff member Brandee Sue Nove, who works with women’s programs at the shelter, handed out rape whistles to attendees on Monday. Nove has been leading a women’s group twice a week in the shelter because, she says, “a lot of the women who come here are dealing with violence, crisis and tragedy.”
Casa Esperanza Executive Director Mike Foley said the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department was out at the event as well, surveying the homeless to create a “vulnerability index,” which tracks the life circumstances and health history of those living on the streets that could put them at risk for fatality. An absence of data is a big challenge, and Foley expects the results of that study to be out by the end of November.
“We’ve been full almost everyday,” he said. The added beds will help more people seek shelter who want it, and “this will open up that opportunity for them.”
The shelter sees 1,300 to 1,400 annually, and at the height of the recession, 1,800 people came through. Foley said those numbers have dropped back down to 1,500, but there’s no way to predict what trends may be in the future. Foley said he does know the shelter has seen a huge increase in mentally ill people seeking treatment at the shelter.
Among the bustling medical tents outside the shelter, social worker Ken Williams, a Noozhawk columnist, was on the scene and said the group was expecting more than last year. He added that 27 homeless deaths already have occurred this year — the same as the total of last year.
Demand is still great, Williams said, adding that “a lot more people are out on the street than in the shelters.”