November 2009 was a tense month for the homeless in Santa Barbara. At least 27 of their comrades had died since January—a record for a seaside resort where the average low in winter is 40°. As Thanksgiving approached that year, doctors, nurses and social workers who advocate for the homeless were on edge. A big storm was moving in, and the regular winter shelter wasn’t scheduled to open for two weeks. Hundreds of vulnerable people would be bedding down in wet doorways and muddy ravines to who knows what effect.
In Santa Barbara, the advocates who look out for this population are an intrepid bunch, often fierce and always resourceful. After asking the city’s main shelter, Casa Esperanza, to open early and getting a resounding “no” for an answer, they took matters into their own hands; they started calling churches. Luckily, the rector at the very first church, Trinity Episcopal Church, said yes, as long as they were peaceful and left things tidy, the homeless could sleep in their parish hall that weekend.
It was a bumpy catch-as-catch-can start to what has become a well-organized and mostly volunteer-based system of ensuring that this famously affluent city is able to keep its homeless residents out of harm’s way in inclement weather.
Not long after that first weekend, advocates named the organization Freedom Warming Centers, to honor a homeless man who died of hypothermia early the next month. Paul Bradshaw, a.k.a. Freedom, fell asleep in his wheelchair at the foot of Stearns Wharf on a rainy December night; having eschewed the crowd and the prohibition on inebriants at the big shelter, he took his chances in the elements and lost. His core temperature fell to 79°.
This winter will be Freedom Warming Centers’ seventh season, and signs are pointing to an El Niño. If it materializes, volunteers and staff will be busy, at least busier than last winter, when they activated only 27 nights but served 1,200 individuals in the process.
Freedom Warming Centers runs on a shoestring and is faith-based on the giving and receiving ends. Ninety percent of the time, churches provide the accommodations, usually on 48–72 hours notice. Four downtown congregations rotate responsibility for providing shelter between November 15 and March 31. Other congregations provide gently used clothes and other tangibles. Churches in Carpinteria, Isla Vista and Santa Maria also step up to offer accommodations when weather triggers warrant them. Parishioners of whichever church is on deck supply a simple supper and at least two paid monitors remain on the premises overnight—making sure things remain peaceful and the space is left spic and span in the morning. Guests routinely help out by cleaning, waking early to make coffee and other small tasks that need doing.
Rev. Julia Hamilton, lead minister at Santa Barbara Unitarian Society, which serves as the organizations’ fiscal agent, says the people who avail themselves of the rotating shelters—which are now countywide—are those who don’t do well in crowded, noisy dormitory-type situations that often have strictly enforced rules, including prohibitions on being under the influence of any kind of substance. The warming centers require only that guests be peaceful, respectful of one another and the environment. The trust has come to flow in both directions.
Ed Wesson, director of operations, remembers an evening when he was busy checking people in at the Unitarian Society. Guests had formed a line in front of his table. A man, new to the assembly, turned his head and spat on the concrete path. Before Wesson could respond, five other guests in line—who were regulars—read him the riot act. “We don’t do that here, man,” said one guest. Another blurted, “That’s so disrespectful.” Wesson didn’t have to do a thing.
The centers work because the people who use them have come to trust the staff, he says, as he recalled one man in particular. “The only time he talks to anyone is when he comes to the warming centers.”
For more information or to donate to Freedom Warming Centers, please call 805/452-5466 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in the winter 2015/16 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.