The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to explore helping staff warming centers for the homeless, and if needed could draw from a contingency fund of up to $40,000.
The board will make a decision next week, but Tuesday’s item was approved 4-1, with Supervisor Joni Gray dissenting.
Rainy and cold winter weather has been an issue this year, and the supervisors authorized staff to work with homeless advocates and faith-based groups to hammer out the details of the ordinance, which will address where the homeless can go during inclement weather.
In the short term, staff will look at possibly funding some of the warming center efforts, using county workers as needed.
The draft includes three scenarios that would kick in once hazardous weather begins. The first calls for Casa Esperanza, the Rescue Mission, Transition House and Noah’s Anchorage offering all of their existing beds.
Once those are filled, the Rescue Mission could use overflow cots, Casa Esperanza could open to full capacity and the Salvation Army could open an overflow shelter. Once all of the local shelters have reached capacity, local jurisdictions would begin to organize area warming centers.
The issue becomes more complicated, however, when the homeless choose not to go to the shelters — sometimes because of mental illness or addiction.
Protocols didn’t call for county staffing, and “we kind of got stuck there,” Supervisor Doreen Farr said.
Farr said Tuesday she hoped the board would look at the protocols and bring something forward for next winter.
“So many people have been generous with their time and money, but they need help,” she said.
Current protocols allow the county to step in, but “to date, that has not been necessary” because the shelters have been able to accommodate people, said Michelle Mickiewicz, deputy director at the county Public Health Department.
The American Red Cross-Santa Barbara County Chapter has declined to help recently because it doesn’t have the staff equipped to deal with people with mental illness, Mickiewicz said.
“They are saying, ‘We’d love to help with this, but we are not fit for this,’” she said.
Homeless advocates have a different view.
“We don’t care about protocol,” said John Buttny, director of Bringing Our Community Home.
The winter storms have put a “human face” on people who are invisible most of the time, he said.
“Casa Esperanza has been at capacity for weeks,” along with the Rescue Mission, he said. “The weather ... exposed a serious gap in the safety net of services.”
Even if every shelter bed was utilized, it would still leave 300 to 400 people on the street with nowhere to go, Buttny said.
With up to 10 churches already volunteering space for the warming centers, county staff, trained in dealing with people with mental illness, are needed to oversee them.
When asked how much it would cost for one staff member to work overnight from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. at one of the shelters, staff reported it would cost $538.
Supervisor Joe Centeno asked why people from the county even needed to be present, and why people couldn’t be trained to watch over the centers for an hourly rate.
The item will go back before the board for final approval next week.
The supervisors also gave the go-ahead Tuesday to the Homeless Death Review Team to research this year’s six homeless deaths and report back in three to five months. The team will collaborate with law enforcement, homeless services providers and interested county commissioners and community members.
About 3,000 deaths occur countywide each year, according to Dr. Peter Hasler, interim public health official with the Public Health Department.
Hasler said 25 to 50 of those deaths are homeless people. The death rates among homeless are the same as those who are housed, he said, despite all the risks the homeless are exposed to. “That’s why we’re asking questions,” he said.
Sheriff Bill Brown also expressed concern about the difficulty of gathering data on the homeless. The challenge lies in identifying who’s actually homeless among the deceased.
Brown said that many times, homeless people will list a shelter or another address as their home address, and people who have homes will list themselves as transient.
The cases are managed by a limited number of officers working as coroners, who are already overworked. The coroner’s office has seen a disturbing trend with an increase in suicides, which were up to 60 deaths in 2009 from the previous year’s 34. The total number of deaths also was up, hovering near a 20 percent increase.
“I’m very reluctant to have to commit that they be involved in a process that’s going to take them away from important work,” Brown said.
Nick Ferrara, a man who said he had been homeless for two years, also spoke Tuesday. He said he’s working on a counseling internship at St. Brigids Fellowship’s homeless outreach program in Isla Vista, and spoke about the death of two homeless veterans, one who died of exposure in December.
“It got me thinking ... We’ve had more folks die here in the last 30 days than in combat in Iraq,” he said. “This place is a battlefield.”
The board voted unanimously Tuesday to proceed with the study.