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Santa Barbara Provides for City’s Homeless

Case Story

The community of Santa Barbara (population 91,000) has one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. The median single-family home price now tops $1 million. Despite the city’s impressive record on producing affordable housing (12 percent of the housing stock), demand far exceeds supply.

The waiting list for public housing has 7,000 applicants and waits can take up to five years. With the loss of nearly every single-room occupancy hotel (either through conversion to tourist hotels or through demolition), many residents have found no other housing option but the streets. The city’s homeless population has reached nearly 3,500 individuals.

Homeless Shelter Needs

Since the 1980s, the city and county operated a winter shelter at the local armory. But in April 1999, the National Guard abruptly announced that the armory would not be available that year due to extensive seismic repair work. With the winter just eight months away, the community looked to the city for a solution to the crisis.

Community Outreach / Participation

The City of Santa Barbara helped establish a broad-based community group of religious, business, government and civic leaders: the Coalition to Provide Shelter and Support to Santa Barbara Homeless. After an extensive search, city staff found an ideal site just as it came on the market – an old furniture warehouse in a commercial/light industrial area near the beach where homeless people frequently congregate. The city immediately provided grant funds to the coalition to acquire it.

With only three months left before the onset of winter, the coalition assembled an army of volunteers (many coming from churches extending from San Diego to Monterey) to help strip the building down to its concrete slab and bare exterior walls. Workers then erected temporary partition walls for offices, a food preparation area, and separate sleeping quarters for women and children.


Thanks to the coalition’s aggressive $3.9 million capital campaign, a $500,000 grant from the county and a $2.6 million grant (plus technical assistance) from the city, successive phases of construction included a second story addition to accommodate essential on-site social services. On December 1, 2002, the $6 million Casa Esperanza (“House of Hope”) was complete.

Shelter Services

Casa Esperanza delivers a full complement of services under one roof, designed to take people out of the spiral of homelessness and get them permanently housed. A 200-bed shelter operates from December through March. Year-round shelter is extended to participants in recovery programs.

Casa Esperanza’s day center is open year-round and addresses not only physical and emotional needs, but also helps empower homeless clients to re-establish independent living. Dozens of service providers are on-site working as a team, including public health nurses, employment and housing specialists, case managers, literacy aides, substance abuse counselors, family therapists, alcohol and drug recovery specialists, school liaisons and veterans’ counselors.

More than 1,500 individuals have been served during the past year. (Clients now use identification cards so there is no double counting.) A gleaming new $400,000 state-of-the-art kitchen serves 106,000 meals annually, including 200 daily lunches. Job placement efforts have been successful; in the past two years, 189 clients found employment. In the past three years, more than 370 formerly homeless clients have been placed in housing. Follow-up studies report that 80 percent of those placed have remained housed.


At the outset, neighborhood opposition to Casa Esperanza was fierce. Opponents disrupted coalition meetings, placed newspaper ads, published newsletters, organized letter-writing campaigns and threatened litigation. The coalition reached out to the neighborhood, held regularly scheduled and noticed evening meetings at Casa Esperanza, and met weekly with opposition leaders. In order to give everyone a chance to speak, the planning commission public hearing for Casa Esperanza lasted two days. Opposition gradually waned and then turned to support. A critical milestone came when the leader of the opposition accepted an offer to join the coalition’s board of directors. He has actively served ever since.

Project financing was also challenging. State redevelopment law does not allow tax increment housing set-aside funds to be used for anything but permanent affordable housing, so redevelopment agency general funds had to be used instead. Another complication was the seller’s insistence on carrying back a loan on the property for tax purposes. Because shelters do not generate rental income, the city funded an annuity from which proceeds would be used to make the monthly mortgage payments.

Community Impact

The old furniture warehouse received a dramatic facelift, featuring attractive architectural details and well-designed patios and decks. Creating the most attractive building in the neighborhood encouraged others to clean up their properties. The city poured new sidewalks and repaved streets, and Casa Esperanza staff make routine daily rounds to collect trash and debris. The coalition spearheaded drives for ordinances that benefit the area, such as prohibiting alcohol consumption at nearby beaches and recreation areas, and eliminating overnight parking on city streets for recreational vehicles and motor homes. Consequently, police calls to the area have plummeted.

Casa Esperanza has created 12 full-time jobs, with many positions going to homeless clients. Job training and counseling and other center services prepare people for employment. Downtown businesses strongly supported Casa Esperanza from the very beginning, and this support has only grown during the course of its operation. In fact, businesses and police officers have lobbied for extension of full shelter operations at Casa Esperanza beyond the winter months.

Transferable Results

Many California communities struggle with homeless issues. Casa Esperanza serves as a model with its under-one-roof approach to provide for the many and varied needs of this troubled population. It demonstrates how public agencies can help bring together the business community, homeless advocates, the faith community and concerned neighbors to overcome divisiveness and address a crisis.


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