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Survey Captures Snapshot of Santa Barbara County’s Homeless Population

Common Ground releases the findings of January's volunteer effort, designed to help prioritize the most vulnerable for housing

By Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper |

After hundreds of volunteers hit the streets during the early morning hours in January to survey Santa Barbara County’s homeless, the results of their findings were announced on Monday.

Common Ground Santa Barbara County’s Vulnerability Index and the Point-in-Time Count were conducted Jan. 22-23 with about 650 volunteers throughout the entire county.

Volunteers asked a slew of questions, including many about medical history, in order to help prioritize the most vulnerable for housing.

Since launching the first survey in 2011, Common Ground has found housing for more than 180 vulnerable individuals and family members representing 92 households. Moving forward, C3H will be launching a 100-day plan in the next few weeks to kick-start getting people housed.

Common Ground and the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness held a briefing Monday in the Faulkner Gallery of the Santa Barbara Central Library to reveal a snapshot of what they found.

C3H facilitator Angela Antenore said collecting a good baseline of data is key to solving the problem and understanding homelessness.

Volunteers encountered 1,466 homeless people this year, a 5 percent reduction from the previous survey. About 80 percent of those people were at risk for early mortality, according to Rob Fredericks, deputy director of the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara.

“We really have to do a better job of ending homelessness,” he said.

Some of the most interesting findings reported that 732 people stated that they had been to an emergency room in last year, which would add up to at least $732,000 for that amount of visits last year, and that number is “a fairly conservative figure,” Fredericks said.

He said that 685 people reported hospital admissions, which could add up conservatively to $4.1 million; 72 percent reported being in jail in the last year, which Fredericks estimated cost at least $977,000; and 25 percent also reported being in prison at some point, which added up to the largest cost of all — about $12 million.

Most of those people, about 65 percent, were surveyed in Santa Barbara, and 21 percent in Santa Maria.

This year, about 31 percent said they were living on the street, 32 percent in a shelter and 16 percent in a vehicle. Fourteen percent of homeless people surveyed were veterans, and 14 percent had aged out of the foster-care system. The oldest person surveyed was 84 years old.

The majority of homeless people surveyed were men, with an average age of 43, and the average time homeless was 6.4 years. A third had experienced violence or trauma on the streets.

The reasons people become homeless also came from a variety of places: 19 percent because of the economy, 26 percent because of a job loss and 19 percent for health reasons.

“That’s particularly telling in light of the last four years,” Fredericks said.

The educational breakdown among homeless people also yielded some surprises: 31 percent reported some college, 25 percent said they were high school graduates and 20 percent completed some high school.

“To me, this just shows that homelessness can hit any one of us,” he said.

Santa Barbara County Public Health Dr. David Lennon said that more than half of people surveyed reported a mental health condition, and about the same number reported alcohol abuse. Forty-four percent reported they had no health insurance, 23 percent had Medicaid coverage and 9 percent were on Medicare.

Lennon said he hopes many of the uninsured will qualify for insurance coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, slated to be implemented next year.

Currently, about a quarter of homeless people said they didn’t seek any medical care at all.

“A lot of them will just not come to an established clinic site,” he said, adding that more needs to be done to reach people on the street.

Before becoming homeless, most people reported being from north or south county; 25 percent chose not to list where they came from.

“There’s a perception that people are flocking to our area for services,” Lennon said.

In addition, 182 families were surveyed, and 122 were deemed vulnerable. Most of the heads of household were female, and a third reported they were victims of physical or sexual abuse. Of 149 children, 10 percent of children had a serious medical condition.

“There are a lot more children out there,” Fredericks said, adding that the Santa Barbara County Education Office estimates that 5,274 students in the school system are homeless.

“We’ve got some work to do there,” he said.

He said much of the underreporting could be due to the fact that the volunteers were only able to survey people on the streets around 4 a.m.

“We’re not going to bang on people’s doors to see whose doubled up,” Lennon said, adding that they’ll be continuing to get a better grasp on a final number of homeless in the county.

Antenore agreed and said the group was treading carefully.

“We don’t want to give you bad data,” she said. However, “whatever the number is, it’s too many.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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