As Santa Barbara County homeless shelters like Good Samaritan in Santa Maria remain at capacity because of COVID-19 limits, staff are holding out for their allocation of vaccines to protect residents and expand services.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Good Samaritan has stepped up as a leader in homeless services, taking over the county-run Santa Maria High School emergency shelter, acquiring extra trailers to house families, and increasing its permanent housing rate for clients from previous years. 

However, it hasn't been easy, shelter director Sylvia Barnard said, and the capacity situation has remained dire into the winter months.

"We are completely full at our Santa Maria emergency shelter," Barnard said. "We’ve been prioritizing veterans and families, but we don’t even have extra trailers to take them in." 

While high demand in the winter isn't unusual, COVID-19 guidelines requiring shelters to operate at 50% capacity have left even more people with nowhere to go, she said. Only residential treatment and safe shelter programs continue to have availability. 

At the Santa Maria emergency shelter, regular capacity allows for approximately 95 individuals. However, with capacity limits, this year it can only hold 50, Barnard said.   

"We’re not completely shut down; we’re just full by CDC guidelines," Barnard said. "We normally run the overflow shelter in wintertime, but this year it’s difficult because we have CDC guidelines that only allow 50% capacity." 

Capacity limits are also straining shelters in the South County. At Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, where 200 people are normally sheltered per night in recovery programs, capacity has been cut severely in order to keep residents safe.

"When this first started, we were able to sleep people head to toe and do what we could. But it's a congregate shelter, and social distancing is a luxury that our population can’t really maintain," Rescue Mission President and CEO Rolf Geyling said. 

Along with the logistical challenges of ensuring that shelter clients are kept safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, Geyling said it has been heartbreaking to have to turn potential clients away due to capacity limits.

Their mission is to provide shelter to those in need, he said, so the restrictions of the pandemic create a strange sort of paradox, Geyling reflected.

"We’re [full] by choice. It’s not for a lack of people asking for beds," he said. 

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Barnard is hopeful that the allocation of COVID-19 vaccines will protect staff and residents from contracting and spreading the illness in shelterwide outbreaks, like a small outbreak in July that kept 150 clients under a four-week lockdown order, she said.  

However, when those vaccinations will arrive has been unclear, she said, as initial doses have been reserved so far for health care staff. 

"I’m hopeful that if our staff and residents can be prioritized for vaccinations for congregate living, then we can get back to providing more capacity," she said. "I would argue that we are as much first responders as anyone else."

Within the county's vaccination timeline, most shelter staff and residents may not receive doses until Phase 1B, which could last into late March. 

"At this time, it appears homeless shelter staff and residents would fall in Phase 1B Tier 2. Any inpatient treatment program staff would fall under Intermediate Care Facilities which would be Phase 1A Tier 2," Santa Barbara County Public Health spokeswoman Jackie Ruiz said. "This can change, but it is our understanding for the time being." 

According to Barnard, Good Samaritan has submitted an application to county Behavioral Wellness requesting vaccines for staff and clients in the shelter's acute care treatment programs. 

"We’re on the list and we’re grateful for that, that we were able to at least get them registered," she said.

In the meantime, there is little that homeless service providers can do to assist those in difficult circumstances; warming shelters only offer services in dangerous weather conditions, and temporary emergency shelters like the 71-person facility at Santa Maria High School have since closed.

In the spring, county officials referenced plans to open similar emergency shelters through mutual use agreements in areas like Lompoc, but these plans have not come to fruition.

"There hasn’t been a lot of discussion around that," Barnard said. "On one hand the CDC discourages congregate living, but non-congregate living is also pretty expensive."

Still, Good Samaritan has found ways to create extra capacity, establishing a 20-person temporary emergency shelter for elderly clients called the Atkinson Center and tiny homes called the Pallet Shelters in Isla Vista. 

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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