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Shelter crisis

Maurissa Vigil and her daughter Atlas, 1, are residents at the Good Samaritan Emergency Shelter. The Santa Maria City Council will consider declaring a "shelter crisis," making the city eligible to receive millions from the state in block grant funds to address homelessness. 

To make itself eligible for millions of dollars in state money to address the rising number of homeless in the city, the Santa Maria City Council will consider during whether to declare a shelter crisis during its Tuesday meeting.

Signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in June 2018, Senate Bill 850 introduced a $500 million block grant program, titled Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP), to provide direct assistance to cities and counties to address immediate homeless challenges in their jurisdictions. 

The area homeless shelter planning agency — the Santa Maria/Santa Barbara County Continuum of Care (CoC) — would administer any awarded funds and allocate them through a request for proposal process. 

In order for the city of Santa Maria to be eligible for program funds that the Santa Maria/Santa Barbara CoC might be granted under HEAP, the program requires both Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County to declare a “shelter crisis.”

The amount of HEAP funds each county and municipality is eligible for is based on the 2017 Point in Time homeless count. Based on the report — which found there were 1,489 homeless people reported in Santa Barbara County, with 629 of those unsheltered — the county would be eligible for approximately $9.4 million.

In the 2017 Point in Time report — which reflects a one-night count across the county on Jan. 26, 2017 — Santa Maria was listed as having 338 total homeless, 85 of whom were unsheltered. The numbers represented a 39-percent increase in the number of homeless persons in Santa Maria since 2011.

The federally mandated Point in Time report — which is coordinated in Santa Barbara County by the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness — included a survey of homeless shelters, care and referral centers as well as public locations where homeless people were known to reside.

Earlier this week, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted to declare a shelter crisis in the county, clearing one of the hurdles to make the county eligible to receive state funds.

If Santa Maria declined to declare a shelter crisis, funds received by Santa Barbara County could be used only in unincorporated areas, or in other cities in the county which did declare a shelter crisis.

Councilman Jack Boysen, who plans to vote in favor of the resolution, said Santa Maria could be eligible to receive up to 25 percent of what the county receives.

“The shelters in our city are all full to capacity with waiting lists so it would certainly qualify as a shelter emergency,” he said.

Eligible uses for HEAP funds include rental assistance, criminal justice diversion, emergency housing interventions and emergency aid. Five percent of the program’s fund may be used for administrative costs. At least 5 percent of the funds would need to be spent on addressing youth homelessness or youth at risk of homelessness.

Sylvia Barnard, executive director of Good Samaritan Shelter, said the nonprofit’s shelters — which can hold a combined 500 people — have been at capacity for several years. The nonprofit shelters around 360 people in Santa Maria and 160 people in Lompoc each night.

Barnard said the funds would have a substantial impact on the city’s ability to address homelessness, adding there is a need for a shelter designed to accommodate homeless with mental health issues that could possibly be supported with HEAP funding.

Boysen said that in addition to the Good Samaritan Shelter and mental health service providers, the city’s code enforcement and law enforcement could be eligible to apply for funding.

Though there is a broad scope of eligible uses for the money, the city should be careful in how any HEAP grants are spent since they are one-time funds, Boysen said.

Applications for the first round of block grant awards are slated to be announced by the end of January. Any money awarded to Santa Maria would have to be spent by June 20, 2021.

Boysen said he hoped the optics of declaring a shelter emergency wouldn't stop the City Council from taking advantage of the block grant program.

“There probably will be some cities that don’t want the stigma of saying they have a shelter crisis,” Boysen said. “Hopefully, none of our council members will bring that up because it’s important we receive our fair share of the money.”

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Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed

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