Continuing to help the most vulnerable

More than 550 volunteers gathered recently before the break of dawn to seek out and interview homeless folks.

Common Ground Santa Barbara County brought together volunteers from more than 100 organizations to count people living on the streets throughout the county, and to identify those who are most at risk of premature death due to homelessness.

Several members of the Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN) were involved in the Vulnerability Index Survey and Point in Time Count. Teams headed out from logistics centers throughout the county to find people where they spent the night before dispersing for the day.

The January results are not available yet, but in 2011 volunteers contacted 1,536 people and 1,143 surveys were completed. Of those surveyed, it was determined that 932, or 79 percent, were vulnerable — at high risk of mortality if they remained on the streets.

Common Ground, in partnership with the 100k Homes Campaign and the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H), is dedicated to housing the most vulnerable homeless people. As of now, 117 of those identified in 2011 have been housed, including 25 families.

During this year’s survey training, participants learned that in 2008 about 40 homeless people died in the county. Preliminary findings for 2012 show about 20 homeless people died here.

Though it can’t be known for certain, it seems likely much of this reduction is due to the identification and subsequent housing of the most vulnerable individuals and families.

I was one of the surveyors in Carpinteria. We met a homeless man at a convenience store. It was 40 degrees. The guy we met had on a T-shirt and sandals. He took the socks we offered. He had to be cold. He had to be hungry. He had a rotten chicken he was going to eat. We didn’t really know how to relate to him. We weren’t able to complete a survey.

In Lompoc, Pat Brady of Good Samaritan Services had an answer for that. This year, they asked people living in homeless shelters to help. With only one-quarter the number of volunteers as compared to 2011, many more homeless people were contacted. A total of 120 people were contacted in Lompoc, and of these, 113 surveys were fully completed. Only four refused to be surveyed.

According to Brady, these volunteers knew where to find homeless people and how to talk to them. They knew one of the churches gave tokens to homeless people to use at a laundromat on Wednesday mornings, so these volunteers completed surveys there. Brady reported surveyors gained self-esteem and clearly produced a more thorough result than others did in 2011.

I think homeless people feel dehumanized when people won’t look at them. When I smile at someone who appears to be homeless, their eyes brighten and they smile back. When I offer a bag with toiletries and snacks, they smile and usually say, “God bless you.”

We should not behave like the priest and the Levite who gave wide berths to the victim of a robbery lying in the road, but rather like the Samaritan who brought the victim to an inn and cared for him. When we meet people who appear to be homeless, we should treat them with dignity and respect.

A smile goes a long way. If you feel so inclined, you can give them a helping hand, or get involved and help them through the Good Samaritan shelters in Santa Maria and Lompoc.

Published February 8, 2013 in the Santa Maria Times. Ken Hough is executive director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). He can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward runs every Friday in the Santa Maria Times, providing a progressive viewpoint on local issues.