Homelessness discussion
Community members listen as panelists discuss homelessness, shelters and other related issues during a Committee for Social Justice forum at the Santa Barbara Veterans’ Memorial Building. (Serena Guentz / Noozhawk photo)

Dozens of community members gathered recently at the Santa Barbara Veterans’ Memorial Building for a panel discussion on homelessness and “shelter solutions up-front.”

“Recent deaths and the pandemic really heightened the awareness of the needs of our unhoused neighbors, as well as the community,” said Kimberlee Albers, Santa Barbara County’s homeless assistance program manager.

“There is this need for easily accessible, safe sleeping spaces.”

Hosted by the nonprofit Committee for Social Justice on Tuesday, the panel included advocates, program coordinators, directors of local organizations offering homeless services, and other community members. Panelists also answered questions from the audience.

“(The Sheriff’s Department) is here to learn from the community that we really don’t understand a lot,” said Lt. Juan Camarena, a panel member. “With homelessness, we’re not the experts, so we want to work with the experts so we can learn, so we can help that community.”

Panelists discussed the different services offered throughout the county, from shelters and day centers like the Father Virgil Cordano Day Center, to navigation centers and sobering centers to county services.

Last July, Albers said, the county received 215 emergency housing vouchers to give out.

“Everybody worked together — the providers, the persons who received the vouchers looking for a unit — and all of them were released in record time,” she said. “We actually led the nation in leasing out.”

Homelessness discussion

From left, Heike Hyson of AmeriCorps; Jon Masuda, Santa Barbara County behavioral wellness supervisor; sheriff’s Lt. Juan Camarena; Jane Lewis; Mustafa; and Kimberlee Albers, homeless assistance program manager for the county, were among the speakers. (Serena Guentz / Noozhawk photo)

Albers said organizers increased the market rate the vouchers could cover and offered a $5,000 incentive to landlords renting out to those using vouchers.

“I think what’s exciting about that is that we found a model that works,” she said.

Another major topic of the conversation surrounded the treatment of the homeless, emphasizing “human-forward thinking.”

“The reason I’m here is because I’m angry,” said a man who gave his name as Mustafa, and said he’s a local advocate currently living out of his van. “It disgusts me to see what I see on a daily basis. … It’s harassment from the citizens, it is harassment from the police.

“What I’m here for is to advocate for the immediate cease and desist of that harassment. … We are human, too. We are your brothers and sisters, and we deserve that respect.”

Jane Lewis, an advocate who became homeless after losing her job during the coronavirus pandemic, shared her experience.

“Nine months ago, I was homeless — living out in the street, living in the creek, living in trees because I was scared of who was going to come at night, laying underneath the wharf. … Not to mention I was also 16 weeks pregnant,” she said.

“Heike (Hyson, who provides homeless outreach with AmeriCorps) brought me to the Bethel House that is a voluntary one-year, Christian-based program and you have to be willing to do all the step work, but what it offers is healing time.”

Because of her experiences, Lewis is also advocating for the fair treatment of homeless individuals.

“They’re very down to earth,” she said. “If you take two minutes to smile and say hi, that makes their day and that’s all what they want — to be recognized and to be treated equal.”

A recording of the full panel discussion can be found on the Committee for Social Justice’s Facebook page.

Noozhawk staff writer Serena Guentz can be reached at sguentz@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Serena Guentz, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Serena Guentz can be reached at sguentz@noozhawk.com.