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Santa Barbara County’s emergency warmth centers — coordinated systems of various churches, nonprofit groups, vol- unteers and county employees working together to shelter the homeless in the winter — have been under tremendous strain this year due to a dramatic drop in local temperatures.
The Freedom Warming Centers chain of emergency shelter establishments — including Santa Barbara’s First Presbyterian Church, Isla Vista’s St. Michael’s University Religious Center, the Carpinteria Community Church, Santa Maria’s Good Samaritan Shelter and Lompoc’s Bridgehouse Shelter — will be open for service from Jan. 10 to 15 in response to predictions of an extreme drop in temperatures.
Emergency warmth center volunteer Maria Long, who has served as an executive director of the county’s Court Appointed Special Advocates, said the centers have had to “activate,” or open for service, more frequently this year as a result of a large influx of visitors.
“We activated 38 times in a total of four months last year, and this year we’ve only been activated since Nov. 15 and we’ve already activated 29 times,” Long said. “You’ve got a colder environment [and] more people on the street converging in the warming centers. That being said, my collaborated partners, — Casa Esperanza, Transition Housing and the Salvation Army — they’re at capacity.”
According to Long, the shelters were first instated as a result of the visibly dire circumstances endured by Santa Barbara’s homeless population.
“You see people that have a mental illness or a disability,people [that] can’t find jobs and can’t afford rent,” Long said. “People who are living in cars are coming and utilizing our services and hospitality team.”
Trinity Episcopal Church administrative assistant Melinda Carey said the shelter has extended its duration of service particularly to accommodate the aging demographic among the region’s transients.
“The more frail [and] old are at risk for being exposed to the rain and the cold,” Carey said. “So that’s what instigatedopening up more sheltered space through the months of November through March.”
According to Long, warming shelters differ from traditional homeless shelters in that they are primarily focused on protect- ing community members from threateningly low temperatures.
“What we provide is a safe, warm place for the unsheltered homeless to sleep at night under dangerous weather condi- tions,” Long said. “We don’t do any case management; we have no expectations for rehabilitation. Our mission is to relieve suffering and to save lives so [that] people don’t die of hypo- thermia.”
However, Freedom Warming Centers also provide shelter- goers with hot meals, shelter and, when available, warm jackets, socks, blankets and used or new clothes. Additionally, Doctors Without Walls and the Salvation Army help provide provisions for hygiene and health treatment. Furthermore, Long said shel- ter volunteers try to provide more than just material support for those seeking refuge.
“What they do get from us is a little more than [shelter]. They get kindness; they get respect,” Long said. “Many times we manage to give out new clothes; hygiene kits are sometimes provided by the Salvation Army and Doctors Without Walls — our collaborative partner — is a noble team of nurses and doctors [that] will come in and treat them for any illnesses or any mental health problems they may be going through.”
Despite the fact that the shelters are often overcrowded, both Long and Carey said they would never turn away some- one in need.
“Trinity has a wonderful group of people whoare ready,” Carey said. “The situation is direr than one would expect [since] the extreme tem- peratures in Santa Barbara this year can be fatal.”
Long said the emergency warmth shelters’ purpose goes beyond simply keeping the homeless comfortable, as the shelters’ existence can mean the difference between life and death for those in need.
“They can get hypothermia and die,” Long said. “Years ago, before the emergency centers were activated, there were a series of homeless related deaths on State Street. That is why the warming centers were created.”
Third-year political science major Garret Harris said he would like to see more programs on campus focused on helping the homeless and suggested that a UCSB student organization should be created to help out the less fortu- nate in Isla Vista.
“The thing I feel bad about [regarding] the home- less population is that they are all really nice guys if you go and talk to them,” Harris said. “They each have their own personalities and … a lot of them are really cool guys. It just sucks that they have to go through the conditions they have to be in.”
According to Long, the first step to being helpful is to acknowledge the homeless and buy them a meal instead of giving them money.
“They are just like you and I [but] somewhere along the way something breaks and it’s hard for them to get back on their feet. Often it’s not their fault,” Long said. “I think that they’re often horribly stigmatized and in my experience in working with them … they’re the most appreciative, kind, and even caring people you will ever meet.”
A version of this article appeared on page 4 of January 10, 2013′s print edition of the Nexus.