The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted last week to allocate $40,000 to make improvements to warming shelters for the homeless.

Warming shelters currently open their doors to the transient population after two consecutive days of rain or when temperatures drop below 35 degrees Fahrenheit. The motion to aid these facilities was prompted after a bout of storms allegedly resulted in the death of five homeless people in January.

The funds will be used to better staff the centers and to purchase more supplies.

According to John Buttney, executive director of Bringing Our Community Home and advocate for the shelters, the community does not realize the extent of the homeless population until times of bad weather.

“There are many [homeless who] we don’t really see when the sun is out,” Buttney said. “They hide out in the bushes until the rain starts, and then we are able to see just how many people are out there who need help.”

Buttney said warming shelters offer benefits traditional homeless shelters do not.

“There are people out there who are mentally ill or have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder … that makes them afraid to go to regular homeless shelters,” Buttney said. “There, they lock the doors at night and [the homeless] can’t leave. At a warming shelter, you have more freedom to wander around, go outside if you want, then come in and sleep, before you leave in the morning,” Buttney said.

Fourth District Supervisor Joni Gray was the only official to vote against the allocation of funds. Gray said her decision was based on issues of clarity.

“This is just not clear. It says it must rain two or more days — but it doesn’t say how long each day — and it says it needs to drop below 35 degrees — but it doesn’t say for how long,” Gray said.
Gray was also concerned about how funds were going to be utilized at the facilities.

“They say funds are going to be used for warming centers, but they don’t really know how they are going to be used at this time,” Gray said.

Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who represents Isla Vista, disagreed, citing the need for warming shelters based on the current number of homeless and the current weather conditions.
“We need [warming shelters] to be able to get through El Niño,” Farr said. “They are crucial to the needs of the homeless out in Santa Barbara.”

However, Farr said the county needs further community support to aid the homeless through the winter.
“The funds may seem like a lot, but when separated out into the five individual districts, that’s only about $8,000 each,” she said. “It really isn’t that much money in the end. Right now we are also looking for private donations to help us through this especially difficult time.”

According to Farr, the board will look into establishing additional warming shelters in Goleta and Lompoc.