Anyone who lives in Santa Barbara will inevitably come in contact with our homeless population. Whether it’s passing by individuals asking for donations on State Street, walking through a public park, or visiting the pier where creative individuals play music, build sand sculptures or offer different games to engage the public. Many of us are uncomfortable interacting with the homeless population for various reasons. Turning a blind eye seems to be the method of choice, quickly passing by individuals asking for donations. This is generally not malicious but rather a reflection of “not knowing” what to do, feeling helpless and perhaps a little bit scared. However, during my applied psychology studies at Antioch it became clear that there is a lot of unjust stigma, stereotyping, and lack of understanding contributing to these barriers to interact.
I wanted to know more about the issue and was able to get in contact with PATH Santa Barbara, an organization that has been working closely with the homeless population for almost 30 years. PATH is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people all across California find permanent housing along with providing supportive services such as medical and mental healthcare, employment
training, and benefits advocacy. This group started off with primarily volunteers distributing clothes and food, then grew and expanded as time moved on. Their main mission is to end homelessness once and for all and envision a future where everybody has a home. PATH now exists in 140 cities across California.
What is so great about this organization is their commitment to identify opportunities and remove barriers so more people can access assistance. They identify housing first as a best practice. This means that the first priority is to arrange a safe place to live in order to tackle such issues as substance abuse and mental health counseling. Empowerment is a big theme both for individuals needing assistance and the community surrounding them. PATH highlights the importance of raising awareness and compassion as discrimination is another factor disempowering homeless individuals.
A representative at PATH, who has been working with the homeless population for 7 years, took the time to respond to some of my questions below via email: What services/programs do you offer to support the homeless population? Street outreach, interim housing, permanent supportive housing, intensive case management services, veterans services, rapid re-housing, family programs. In your experience, what are some of the reasons behind experiencing homelessness? Structural Societal Inequality – Redlining, Racism, Criminalization Housing Crisis – Rent increases, stagnant wages, lack of affordable housing Personal Experiences – Domestic violence, substance use, racism Lack of community resources – Behavioral health resources, NIMBY, health care What are some barriers to receiving support and accessing resources for those affected? Fear or distrust in the support systems, lack of transportation, health concerns, lack of stability, inability to access phone, computer etc, missing identification, contact info, etc. required for enrollment in services Do you believe there is a problem with stigma and prejudice against the homeless? Yes Is there anything we as fellow citizens and individuals can do to support the homeless? Yes, due to widespread stigma it is important for citizens and individuals to get informed about the issues involved, and to help change the narrative about homeless individuals in our communities. I work to support community engagement and volunteer programs, and I believe it is up to each individual to get involved and find out how they can help. We can show up for our neighbors that are currently experiencing homelessness and show them that there is hope and a way forward, and that the community does care. We can build trust and a sense of togetherness and unity as our unhoused neighbors work towards stability.
The County of Santa Barbara behavioral wellness website echoes PATH’s ideas and identifies stigma as one of the major barriers to ending homelessness. Homelessness in Santa Barbara County can be substantially reduced by doing one or more of the following:
- Fight stigma. Educate others about the fact that “Most people with mental illness are not violent, and only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness.” (Department of Health and Human Services)
- Inform landlords that individuals they accept with mental illness will be linked to supportive services and receive weekly visits from an outreach worker to help ensure success. To learn more, please contact Chuck Flacks, Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness, (805) 293-7965, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Join a volunteer outreach team. Contact Stephen Gruver of Common Ground, (805) 451-5604, email@example.com.
- Support or advocate for a Landlord Liaison Program (LLP). This best practice is a partnership of landlords, property managers, human services agencies and homeless people. Homeless individuals are offered assistance with permanent housing and ongoing support from human service agencies. Landlords receive incentives like rapid response to concerns, a 24-hour call-in line and risk reduction funds.
If we stand up to stigma and work collaboratively, we can make homelessness a thing of the past. Needless to say, it’s important to dismantle this fearful perspective and become a better ally and neighbor. I was able to do so by educating myself on these issues through my social justice studies. With a better understanding of harmful stereotypes and pervasive stigma I feel better equipped to change my perception and inform those around me. It is not necessary to have an undergraduate degree to participate in meaningful discussion and advocacy. A little bit of awareness goes a long way.
Interested in becoming a volunteer at PATH? Sign up here https://www.epath.org/volunteer