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When It Counts, Karin Svensson Is There for the Homeless and Hungry

Community volunteer embodies commitment to service that Man, Woman of the Year celebrates

[Noozhawk’s note: First in a series of articles highlighting Santa Barbara’s Man and Woman of the Year awards. The nomination period for 2013 honors is now open.]

Karin Svensson was one of about 500 volunteers who helped conduct the Common Ground Santa Barbara County survey on the homeless earlier this year. (Clint Weisman Photography photo)

Karin Svensson finds it difficult to ignore a hungry person. She works hard at a full-time job that often takes far more time than the standard 40 hours per week. And yet, she was willing to rise at 4 a.m. on several bitterly cold, dark mornings in January to join about 500 other volunteers to seek out and count the homeless.


The local survey was organized by Common Ground Santa Barbara County as part of the national Vulnerability Index Survey. Required by the Housing and Urban Development Department and undertaken every two years, the survey collects data that is used to obtain federal monies to combat homelessness.

Armed with flashlights, warm clothing and a survey form, Svensson set out with a designated team member to look for homeless people in the area around Milpas Street and Highway 101. They did not disturb sleepers but noted their location, intending to return at a later hour. Each brought new socks and $5 gift cards to McDonald’s, Starbucks and Blenders.

Svensson and her teammate later entered a McDonald’s around 5 a.m., approaching several apparent homeless individuals. Feeling intrusive, she was relieved to find that they did not mind being approached. On the contrary, they appreciated having a sympathetic ear.

From her volunteerism, Svensson discovered that the causes of homelessness are diverse and complex. Many of the people she met were victims of the recession and the personal landslide that can happen after someone loses a job, a spouse or a home. Many had been homeless for five to 10 years. Some admitted to substance abuse, such as the young man who said he had been dishonorably discharged form the Army for drug use. Others acknowledged mental health problems.

Many had grown up in the Santa Barbara area. Some were enterprising, finding ways to earn a little money gathering recyclable items. Others panhandled.

Each morning after volunteering for five hours, Svensson returned home, slept for an hour and went to work. She said she is grateful for her experience and intends to repeat it. She knows that she, too, like many in the community, could become homeless. She recalls the words of Sheila McKechnie, a fierce British activist for the homeless, “People who are homeless are not social inadequates. They are people without homes.”

                                                                  •        •        •

Volunteers enrich all our lives.

Do you know a volunteer who has made a significant impact on the Santa Barbara community? You can nominate that person to be the next Man or Woman of the Year! Click here to fill out a simple online nomination form. Sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation, Noozhawk and KDB, nominations are open until Aug. 30.

— Suzanne Farwell represents the Santa Barbara Foundation.

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