COVID-19 Causes Changes in Homeless Shelters


Staff Writer

“Freedom,”a homeless man under the influence of alcohol, turned away from our Santa Barbara homeless shelter in 2006 and died of hypothermia in the middle of the night. The Santa Barbara Freedom Warming Center was then founded and has been protecting and sheltering Santa Barbara’s homeless for over 14 years. They are one of the few homeless shelter in Santa Barbara to allow homeless under the influence of alcohol and drugs to use their shelter. Homeless shelters have always and will continue to be a necessary outreach to stabilize homelessness in Santa Barbara. The warming center is a refuge from unforeseeable outside circumstances, providing warm food cultivated by our members of the church community, water, clean bathrooms, and a welcoming, respectable staff.

  The global phenomenon that is the COVID pandemic swept away our country and has affected our entire economy and structure, Freedom Warming Center not excluded from that by any means. The Non-profit organization has never had such an intense hardship or threat. To ensure the homeless have a safe place to sleep, but also applying COVID restrictions has been a tough take on for the staff and as well the homeless. For instance, when someone tests positive for COVID, they must be turned away with no other option but back to thirty to forty degree weather that Santa Barbara experienced this December. When the building simply runs out of space due to the ‘six-feet apart’ rule, there is nowhere else to return that does not inevitably risk their health. Caleb Brown, The South County Activation Coordinator says,

“We just don’t have the space we used to before this pandemic”  

The Santa Barbara Warming Center has taken mandatory measures to decrease the spread of COVID. Including obligatory covid tests, enforcing masks, no socializing, a strict cleaning schedule for each nightly and daily shift and the ‘six-feet apart’ rule. They are doing everything they can and this is an organization that is vital to keep thriving just as much as the need to keep our schools and gyms open. Caleb Brown, the manager of nine years states “It was 31 degrees one night this December.

Due to Covid we did not have enough space to confine with the Covid rules of the beds 6 feet apart.” He then goes on to say “I had to turn away so many of our homeless to that 31 degree weather. I kept thinking about Freedom and the heartbreak I feel having to send these people out back into that unforgiving cold” 

Raeanna Stepens, Sophomore at San Marcos High School said,

“This is far from ideal, homeless deserve home no matter what.”

When homeless are turned away it has never been more obvious of the intense shortage of shelters we have in this community. In counting three in total, with only one allowing the intake of alcohol and drug consumption to use their facility. While the HUD, United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, estimates that in 2019, 36% of homeless suffer from chronic substance abuse. You could imagine the demand and use of the freedom warming center. Although there is plenty of land and empty buildings in our community, there seems to be little will to help the homeless.

The use of extra space for the homeless that cannot fit into our 3 shelters would be more than helpful with this extra component of COVID. 

Robert Labarge, previous Santa Barbara firefighter, has been on these streets for 20 years. He has found homeless shelters especially helpful in the past year and “keeps him warm and the food is good.” He has many medical problems and the shelter offers Doctors without Walls, a non-profit organization that visits our shelter for homeless who seek free medical care or are not aware that they are in need of medical attention. Even more the reason why we need more shelters and why COVID has taken such a huge toll. The homeless cannot afford to lose this help. We have always needed more shelters in Santa Barbara but it has never been more prominent during this pandemic. We need more shelters in the community but we also have to want more shelters. As we have to stop villainizing the entirety of our homeless. It has been difficult to digest the unprecedented shortage of homeless shelters and the turning away of so many homeless men, women, and children back to the devastating rain and cold.

Image courtesy of Lilah Rodgers