Tackling Homelessness is Hard, Emotionally Exhausting Work

By Sharon Byrne   |   May 27, 2021
The Hands team at the Sea Meadow camp in April

When we started the Hands Across Montecito project late last year, we counted 31 individuals living unsheltered along our railroad tracks and on beaches. We took an approach now touted by Bakersfield: work cases individually, on a by-name basis.

Each person’s needs are different, so you have to find the solution that works for them. We have a monthly team meeting with Montecito neighbors that perform outreach, City Net, Behavioral Wellness Homeless Outreach, Montecito Fire, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, and, at times, a representative from the office of Assemblymember Steve Bennett. You can do a lot with a crew like that!

We’ve reunited some folks with family in other jurisdictions when that was the best answer. We’ve temporarily housed in hotel rooms or sober-living facilities. Montecitans raised the funds for this work, and are taking a direct, hands-on approach. 

One of our team members, Andrea Hein, walks everywhere, and immediately refers individuals she encounters. Vicki Hazard, Lanny Sherwin, and Ron Sickafoose have personally taken on outreach to our most vulnerable individual. Lanny also engages new individuals that turn up, finds out their story and needs, and shares that to the team. Doug Black, our Montecito Association Board vice president, has been super helpful when we run into legal questions. Our sheriffs go on outreach with us. It’s a very hard-working team!

The goal is to get to “Functional Zero,” already achieved by Bakersfield, where you house and place everyone experiencing homelessness in your community. Eventually you get to a place where homelessness becomes rare and is turned around quickly. This needs to be the overarching policy goal for Santa Barbara County. Everything short of that is just managing the problem, which guarantees its persistence.

I sit on similar calls for the Waterfront and sometimes the Eastside, as well as County and City calls. There’s no passport check at the city line, so individuals migrate frequently along the tracks between Carpinteria, Montecito, and Santa Barbara. I don’t see the same approach in those teams that we’re using in Montecito. While there are many neighbors and businesses on the calls, they’re not taking a hands-on approach, perhaps believing agencies will solve these problems. That approach has not worked yet. Neither has giving funds to various agencies and hoping they’ll magically team up to figure out solutions.

Kath Washburn does work at the Sea Meadow camp

About three weeks ago, we got to “Functional Zero” in Montecito; only three individuals remained unsheltered here. We were excited to place two individuals camping at the beach into hotels — one of them is a native Montecitan. Grocery trips were organized, with Hands volunteers making food deliveries. Andrea donated a computer for one of the Hands clients, so he could start classes at SBCC to become a teacher of English in foreign countries. Things were looking really good…

But setbacks can happen, especially when substances are involved. The majority of folks we’ve worked with are young and struggle with meth addiction. Meth is tough to kick, and medically assisted treatment is rare and expensive. We were saddened when the individual who wanted to go to SBCC exited himself out of sober living just six days later and returned to homelessness. Our local Montecitan in a hotel room was tossed out of that room the next night when a girlfriend turned up and waged a screaming session in the hallway at 3 am. Back to Hammond’s Meadow he went.

You have to take setbacks like these as they come and try again.

We see turnover in our City Net outreach team staff, and it’s starting to hurt our capacity to manage our cases and tackle new ones. The Los Angeles Times reported on this a week ago — L.A.’s outreach workers are also turning over at high rate. Outreach workers are the front line in the battle to end homelessness. Workers employed by cities or counties tend to be better compensated. It’s the contract workers, often paid far less, that burn out. The job is emotionally demanding.

Montecito neighbors and I stepped up to backfill the loss of one of our City Net outreach workers, and it was an exhausting couple of weeks, to say the least. When you hit a setback, as is normal when working with people experiencing addiction, it’s hard not to feel depressed over it. I suggested on a county leadership call for homelessness this week that we raise the pay for City Net teams covering Montecito, as well as the city and county of Santa Barbara. We also need to emotionally support them in this work.

The Hands team would not be this successful if not for Montecito neighbors, both in their work with individuals experiencing homelessness, and the financial support from our community. The Hands team meets the first Wednesday of every month at 9:30 am. You’re welcome to join us!


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