Santa Barbara’s El Carrillo shelter, an attractive set of mission-style buildings just a few streets from State Street’s hustle and bustle, has become a respite for the area’s homeless in the four years since it opened.
Last week, the facility held its annual Christmas party, and about a dozen of its residents gathered to eat tri-tip and desserts, as well as decorate a community tree and exchange gifts.
Among the guests was resident Lisa Bidlow, who spent years on the streets before seeking help four years ago. Bidlow, a cheery 49-year-old with blond braids poking out from under a Santa hat, talked about just how far she’s come.
Her journey to homelessness began when she had a nervous breakdown, lost her health insurance, which she needed to be able to afford her medications, and was pulled into a vicious cycle. Bidlow said she felt a lot of shame, not being able to hold down the routines of life. Living on the streets of Santa Barbara, Bidlow slept almost exclusively outside, and went on to spend three years on the street.
“It became a lifestyle,” she said. “I had a lot of brokenness.”
She said being homeless gave her a way to engage in her alcohol addiction relatively unbothered, save for the occasional police officer.
“The cops get to know and ask when you’re going to detox,” Bidlow said.
She said she does miss the freedom of that life, and being outside so much.
“I loved just having my backpack and everything I needed,” she said, adding that the homeless people she called her friends made up a tight community. “I loved sleeping under the stars.”
But that awesome view left her sleeping in some unsavory places, such as behind garbage cans.
Despite the appealing facets of freedom, life on the streets was allowing Bidlow to destroy her health with alcohol. “I was drinking my life away,” she said.
Those on the streets are often victims of brutality and sexual trauma, and Bidlow said she didn’t escape that in her time on the streets. After she witnessed several street friends die, Bidlow said she had a spiritual awakening that changed her perspective.
“I realized I was going to die out there,” she said. “God was looking out for me.”
She also credits social worker Ken Williams, who ran into Bidlow on his rounds walking the streets.
“He used to say he expected to find me dead,” she said. “He was a huge part in me getting out of homelessness. To me, he represented hope and a better way of life.”
Bidlow was arrested again and used it as a turning point. She checked herself into the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, where she graduated from its rehabilitation program, and moved into the Santa Barbara Community Housing Corp.‘s Hotel de Riviera.
“I never would have made it” were it not for the Rescue Mission, HDR and El Carrillo, Bidlow said. She has been at El Carrillo for a year, and was on the verge of moving to a one-bedroom apartment with a Section 8 voucher in the next few days when Noozhawk talked with her last week.
“I’ll have a new home for Christmas,” she said proudly.
Nov. 29 marked the fourth anniversary of Bidlow being drug- and alcohol -free, and she acknowledges that it “takes a lot of courage to live life without addiction.” But she’s tenacious about reclaiming her life. “I want to be a warrior,” she said.
She has two grown sons who live locally, and she says it has been rewarding to reconcile with them since her recovery.
“El Carrillo has been a huge stepping stone for me,” she said. “I’ve felt very supported. … To know that you have help is awesome.”
The ability to meet with a case manager on site also has been crucial as she has progressed in her recovery, one of the benefits of the facility. It’s independent living, but the staff is there for support, said Duncan Wright, coordinator of supportive services of PathPoint at El Carrillo.
“They have their own lives,” he said. “But we’re here if they need anything.”
Half of the 61 residents at El Carrillo have mental health diagnoses, so having case managers come to them has proved successful.
Bidlow said that many of her old friends don’t recognize her these days.
When asked what she would tell those who still choose to live on the streets, she said, “There’s help out there. They’ve got to want it.”