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Weathering Winter's Worst
updated: Dec 21, 2013, 4:00 PM

By Alex Kacik

Emergency overnight warming shelters opened for the first time this year on Thanksgiving, but Bill Tonas chose to spend the holiday where he'd been for the majority of the past six years-outside.

Tonas could often be seen in front of the Santa Barbara Public Library with a book in hand and that's where Mission and State met him in October. The 60-year-old, who had worked for Kinko's for a good part of his 52 years in Santa Barbara, described what it's like living outside, funneling through unemployment offices and seeking housing.

Breaking bread: Volunteers dish out a warm dinner on a cold night at Trinity Episcopal Church. (Alex Kacik)

"The hardest thing in my life is finding somewhere to stay out of their way, where they don't see you all the time," Tonas told Mission and State in October. "That's pretty much what it boils down to."

He said his plan was to "go back up to the hills and build a little cabin," but Tonas died on Thanksgiving of a heart attack, says his close friend, Rick.

Rick is among the 50 or so people who decided to seek shelter at Trinity Episcopal Church on a cold December 5 evening. Warm and safe for tonight, he can't help but think of his departed friend, who suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure.

"We were supposed to meet at the library that night," Rick recalls. "He was coughing up blood two nights before and we were supposed to go over there to see if he was eating enough food. I would tell him, ‘Bill, lets go to the doctor,' and he would say, ‘I'll go to the doctor.' I should've kept on him. But if he was going to go, that's what he would've wanted to do-he wanted to just fall asleep. He didn't want to suffer."

The Freedom Warming Centers in Santa Barbara County started in 2009 to keep people like Tonas alive. On cold winter nights, dozens of people line up outside of participating facilities such as Trinity Episcopal Church, but not for a sermon. Volunteers and staff from the the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, which manages the program, converting churches and faith-based organizations throughout the county into safe havens when the temperature dips below 36 degrees and/or significant rainfall is expected.

The warming center locations alternate between available spaces at organizations such as the First Presbyterian Church, the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara and First United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara; St. Michael's University Religious Center in Isla Vista and the Newlove Community Center in Santa Maria.

This evening, volunteers turn Trinity Episcopal Church's altar into a makeshift triage center of toiletries, medical supplies, coffee, food, water, socks, jackets, blankets and mats stacked in front of a gold crucifix and candles. "Big" Ed Wesson, program director of the Freedom Warming Centers, briefs his team as they gather around the altar just before the doors open at 6 p.m. He's an affable man dressed in baby-blue retro Minneapolis Lakers gear.

Nine-year-old Alli Stein walks between rows of pews laying down mats and blankets for people to sleep on. She places a mat for a young, homeless man wearing a hooded sweatshirt and carrying a backpack next to a decorated Christmas tree placed in front of a tapestry of Jesus and his disciples.

"I put blankets and mats down," says Stein, who's affectionately called "Alligator." She is volunteering at the church for the third night this winter. "My dad started working here and I help out. The last one I worked at, I helped take away chairs from tables."

Alli Stein, 9, volunteers at the Freedom Warming Centers. (Alex Kacik)

The Freedom Warming Centers have opened on 10 days so far this year and have served 703 people. According to Maria Long, who coordinates the program for the Unitarian Society, more and more people have been using the warming centers since the program began in 2009: 4,184 last year, 3,800 in 2011, 2,600 in 2010 and 1,700 in 2009.

"It's often misunderstood. People are always thinking it's the drunk guys that sleep at library, but that's not everybody. That's just a small percentage," she says. "They trust us and they know us. This is a sacred place for them."

The foreclosed homes, unemployment, underemployment and cutbacks to social services that came with the Great Recession have pushed homeless shelters throughout Santa Barbara County to near capacity. At the same time, those who are ready to transition from shelters are finding it difficult to get apartments due to the low rental vacancy rate, says the Unitarian Society's Reverend Julia Hamilton.

"The places people used to turn to have been cut back," says Hamilton. "We've seen the effect of the sequester and we can't discount mental illness. There's really no real safety net for people who have a disability and who can't stay on medication without support."

Part of that safety net is subsidized housing. There are 7,500-plus people on the City of Santa Barbara Housing Authority's waiting list for public housing and it had to pull back 107 Section 8 vouchers this year due to the federal budget cuts known as the sequester.

The Freedom Warming Centers cost about $200,000 annually to run and are funded through the City of Santa Barbara ($10,000), the City of Carpinteria ($5,000), the City of Goleta ($7,726), Santa Barbara County's General Fund ($50,000), and other grants and donations. On December 10, the Santa Barbara City Council approved an additional $15,000 that will pay for staff, transportation, supplies and insurance to open an additional center at a yet undecided location. The warming centers each cost about $40,000 to run. The Unitarian Society plans to make up the difference for the new center through county and private funding.

Santa Barbara County spends around $8.5 million of its $1.16 billion budget this fiscal year on homeless services, according to Santa Barbara County Budget Director Tom Alvarez.

"It's hard for people to live in Santa Barbara if you are young or if you are a Baby Boomer like I am," said Nikola Husbands, a homeless woman staying at the Trinity Episcopal Church.

Husbands is a single parent who worked in intercollegiate athletics at UC Santa Barbara for eight years, taking on two side jobs to support her three children. She became homeless after her landlord remodeled her studio without proper permits and was evicted, and "it was downhill from there."

Husbands, who has long, curly brown hair and a weathered face, is friendly and calm as she talks about her relationship with her kids, how the times are changing and even Bob Dylan.

"It saddens me a lot about the state of affairs our country is in," she says. "There are so many people that homelessness and poverty is affecting. I hope it leads to change."

Excerpt provided by Mission and State. Read the full story on MissionAndState.org


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