Showers and Safe Parking: ‘A matter of dignity’

St. Vincent de Paul Society, Catholic parishes assist homeless in Santa Barbara.

With its “American Riviera” reputation as an affluent beachside community, graced with luxury homes and pricey hotels, the city of Santa Barbara may not strike non-Santa Barbarans as a place where homeless exist, much less need any sort of community assistance with food, shelter and clothing.

Yet 892 homeless is 892 homeless, as tabulated in Santa Barbara County’s 2015 Vulnerability Index Survey. Add another 100 or so from Santa Barbara’s neighbors to the west, Goleta and Isla Vista, and it represents two-thirds of the county’s 1,455 homeless individuals.

Even that figure, some say, is too low given Santa Barbara’s “corridor location” between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which have the largest share of the California’s 113,000 homeless. And because many homeless are transients and harder to tabulate, some estimate the county’s homeless population at any given time to be as high as 4,000.

Regardless of the numbers, however, the greater Santa Barbara area has stepped up its programs aimed at serving the homeless, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Catholic parishes and the whole local faith community are a big part of that outreach, through two unique programs:

-Safe Parking, an initiative developed through a non-profit counseling center, enables homeless individuals and families living out of their cars to park their vehicles overnight in secure, monitored lots. The program is supported by St. Vincent de Paul Society parish conferences at San Roque Church in northwest Santa Barbara and St. Raphael Church in Goleta, whose members supply the homeless with food, gas and car repairs.

Showers of Blessing, a community-wide effort launched by interfaith leaders, provides showers, hygiene items, clean clothing and hot meals to the homeless at several area churches — among them, Our Lady of Sorrows Church (in downtown Santa Barbara) and St. Mark’s University Parish (near the Isla Vista campus of UC Santa Barbara).

In each case, the goal is to provide the homeless who utilize these programs with not only sustenance but security and dignity.


Safe Parking

Inspired by a program in Oregon, Santa Barbara’s New Beginnings Counseling Center in 2004 began the Safe Parking Program in cooperation with numerous local churches, governmental and non-profit agencies and businesses. Currently, New Beginnings oversees 115 parking spaces at 20 “confidential” locations throughout the area that serve homeless, usually from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

“We provide confidential, daily-monitored parking places for those who are living in their vehicles, both individuals and families, because they do not have sufficient income to provide for their basic need of affordable housing,” says Amanda Staples, Safe Parking program director. “And the support of Catholic parishes and others in the faith community is invaluable.”

The SVDP Conferences at San Roque and St. Raphael have both been active in this effort for several years.

“We’re responding to people who, for a variety of reasons — fixed or low income, or their job situation — can’t afford rent for a home or apartment,” explains Theresa Dietz, conference secretary at San Roque. “Some are working poor whose wages just aren’t enough, and they need assistance with food, gas, car repairs — basic needs to survive. And that’s where we come in.

Once contacted by New Beginnings of a need, a team of “Vincentians” meets with the homeless person or family to assess their available income and immediate needs.

“Then we meet as a conference and decide what to do, like a family sharing ideas at the dinner table, because maybe one person has an idea or resource that no one else has thought of,” says Dietz. “It’s a good system, and it helps us serve each client in the best possible way.”

Some homeless may need help to maintain electric wheelchairs or scooters that have pricey batteries and chargers, while others need car repairs to help pass smog tests and register their vehicles (all Safe Parking participants must have valid driver’s licenses and proof of registration and insurance). In such cases, “we have car repair and tire shop vendors who work with us on pricing and servicing for these people,” says Dietz.

Neither San Roque nor St. Raphael actually host the overnight parking, primarily for concerns over children’s safety at parish or nearby schools, but they assist the homeless “in every other way we can,” says John Meagher, St. Raphael’s SVDP Conference president and member since 2002.

“We offer them food vouchers for a local market of $25 to $50, gift cards for McDonalds, money for gasoline and car repair help if it’s under $300,” explains Meagher, a 50-year parishioner of St. Raphael. “One disabled fellow needed a new alternator and belts that we could buy and a friend of his could install, which kept the repair cost down. And it feels good to help people get back on their feet.”

In addition to operating safe overnight parking spaces, the Safe Parking program connects the chronically homeless to shelters and services “that will get them off the streets and into safer environments,” says Staples.

“Other agencies all over California have asked us about what we do and how, hoping to replicate it,” she continues. “And we do intensive case management to help them transition into permanent housing wherever possible.”


Showers of Blessing

Every Thursday afternoon before 3:30, a trailer truck — carrying two fully-equipped portable shower stalls — pulls into the parking lot of Our Lady of Sorrows Church, just a block off of trendy State Street.

Waiting are a host of volunteers, armed with towels, soap, shaving materials, deodorant and clean clothes. Waiting, too, are men and women who may or may not have showered during the past week, or longer.

The trailer is hooked up to a water supply station, and soon the waiting homeless — once they check in — are ushered into the shower stalls by volunteers who have cleaned and disinfected the stalls before and after each shower. When they are done, each shower-taker places his old clothes into a provided bag and receives clean clothes — in some cases, their own clothes that were washed after their shower a week earlier.

At about 6:30 p.m., the homeless assemble in neighboring Alameda Park where many of them spend the night, and where they are fed a hot meal through the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness, an effort again involving parish and SVDP volunteers.

The same process occurs weekly at St. Mark’s University Parish in Isla Vista, one of five participating churches in Showers of Blessing, launched two years ago with proceeds of the sale of the University Religious Center, and coordinated by HEAL (Health, Empowerment And Love), part of a regional interfaith initiative.

Ronald Cox, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Goleta, and Doug Miller, now-retired pastor of First Baptist Church of Santa Barbara, were the principal developers of the program that, since its inception, has provided 3,000 showers to homeless men and women. Other host churches include St. Michael’s Episcopal and St. Athanasius Orthodox.

“We’d been searching three years for idea to help the Central Coast homeless, who number in the thousands,” says Miller. “And we saw a shower program operating in L.A. County that we thought could work here. We got the donation of truck to transport the shower trailer, and we were able to get several churches to host it.”

Our Lady of Sorrows became involved earlier this year at the request of its pastor, Father Rafael Marin-Leon, “who wanted to provide outreach to the homeless in this year of Mercy,” notes Cara Crosetti, parish business manager.

“Our parish staffed talked it over, supported the idea, and it has worked out well. It’s very well organized, with quite a number of UCSB students involved. We provide the water and power, we get donations for clothing and hygiene items, and we assist in preparing and serving meals in the park afterwards.”

Dietz of San Roque says that her husband John makes sandwiches and takes them to the homeless, and “also offers fellowship by spending time talking with them. That’s part of helping them know that we recognize their value as children of God, regardless of their circumstances.”

Indeed, there is more than cleanliness of body that comes from this outreach effort, says Miller.

“This brings new dignity to their lives,” he says. “They come out of the shower as different people, cleansing not only the external dirt but the internal sadness. One guy said to me as he came out, ‘I’ve been born again.’ Another said it was his first hot shower in 10 years.

“And now that they’ve cleaned up, they feel like they can go out in public with some dignity — go to a movie, into a restaurant, for a job interview — and feel decent. It’s made a real difference in the lives of many.”

A few former clients, in fact, are now employed in the ministry, including operations manager Linda McDaid. “She was a homeless person who went thru rehab,” says Miller. “She now has a home and a car and she’s done a great job.”

With each Showers of Blessings visit, it isn’t just the shower, but the meals and a spiritual presence (through a priest, pastor or spiritual counselor) that help the homeless clientele connect with those who serve them — to the point, says Dietz, that she wonders who benefits most.

“Sometimes these are people who’ve had a bad break, and just need to talk and pray with someone and share their story,” she says. “And as you talk with them, you realize that there are such giving and generous attitudes among these people we serve. You feel so very blessed by them — like they are serving you as much as you think you’re serving them.”