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Vigil Held for Homeless People Who Died in Santa Barbara County this Year

Gathering aimed at bringing awareness to the challenges facing those who live on the streets

Participants gather at the Santa Barbara Courthouse Wednesday night during a vigil that was held to memorialize homeless people who have died this year on the streets. Click to view larger
Participants gather at the Santa Barbara Courthouse Wednesday night during a vigil that was held to memorialize homeless people who have died this year on the streets. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

To bring awareness about homelessness, an intimate crowd in Santa Barbara gathered on the longest night of the year — the winter solstice — to memorialize people who have died this year in the streets.

A handful of community members and activist with the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice and Common Ground and Common Ground of Santa Barbara held flame-less candles Wednesday to remember homeless people who have died.

The vigil coincided with similar gatherings around the nation, and since 1992, National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day has been observed on Dec. 21.

“People without homes during the cold, dark nights of winter are suffering, and we must remember that suffering,” said Chuck Flacks, executive director of the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness. “It seems a fitting tribute to those who have died homeless, to honor them on this longest night and pledge to do our best to end the suffering of the living.”

Looking at the list of people identified as homeless, 10 were named in 2016 and 35 in 2015.

You’ll notice people named David W., Mary C. and Mark M.

“The last names are protected for confidentiality,” said a speaker to more than 30 attendees huddled in winter jackets and scarves at the Santa Barbara Courthouse steps. 

Candelario Martinez Ceja, 39, is another name to add to the list.

Ceja was identified by Santa Barbara police as the homeless man who died when a fire broke out in drainage culvert under Highway 101 in the city's Lower Eastside on Dec. 5.

Ceja was homeless in Santa Barbara at the time of his death, according to police Sgt. Riley Harwood.

Flacks noted that homeless death statistics are still being compiled by the county's Public Health Department in partnership with law enforcement, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Coroner’s Office and social service agencies.

The number of homeless deaths has dropped since the availability of health care through the Affordable Care Act, as well as local outreach organizations and services such as Doctors Without Walls and Common Ground Santa Barbara County, Flacks said.

“Sadly, we are busier than ever,” said Doctors Without Walls Executive Director Maria Long. “We are active and we are busy. I am more than honored to help.”

The biggest need for homeless people is housing, Flacks said.

The number of shelter beds during the cold winter months is nearly adequate to provide places for people to sleep who want it, he said.

“Ultimately, we want no one to have to die on the streets for lack of housing and supportive services,” Flacks said. 

He noted the work of locals shelters such as the Freedom Warming Centers of Santa Barbara, the 100 beds expanded capacity during the winter months at PATH, the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, the Salvation Army, the Good Samaritan Shelter and Transition House. 

Some individuals don't want to abide by the rules of shelters, or can't live in a shelter environment, Flacks said. 

County statistics on homelessness have been reported by the Public Health and Social Services departments, Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services, the Sheriff’s Department and community collaborators.

The highest number of homeless deaths occur during the winter season, according to data compiled in 2009 to 2011 by the Santa Santa County Homeless Death Review Team.

The report shows those who died in the county tended to be white males, non-Hispanic, 50-59 years old, and who have died due to alcohol and drug-related issues — either overdose or chronic health conditions from using substances, Flacks said.

Additionally, the data indicate that 5,247 individuals were counted as the “reasonable estimate total persons experiencing homelessness” in the county from 2009 to 2011.

The number of deaths for 2011 decreased by 25 percent over the last two years, “although (it’s) much to early to predict this decrease as a trend, and there is much more work to be done,” according to the report. 

The study also noted that “by its very nature, homelessness is impossible to measure with 100 percent accuracy.”

At the end of the memorial service, supporters handed out information about the Point in Time Count, a survey of unsheltered and sheltered homeless individuals across the U.S.

The data collection is set for Jan. 26., and will take place across the county. 

Local organizations are seeking volunteers to participate from 5:15 p.m. to 9 p.m.

To learn more visit, http://www.commongroundsb.org

Santa Barbara’s annual vigil on Wednesday has taken place for the past four years, and the public was invited to attend.

Flacks said he recognized only one homeless man who attended the ceremony.

“The realities for people are very complex, and each person has his or her own story,” Flacks said. “The best solution is finding housing for people and giving them the services they need to keep them housed.

"Given that we know how to solve the problem, it seems almost a crime that we continue to neglect these vulnerable people.”

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland 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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