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Social Justice

Warming centers display Christmas spirit
Sunday, December 25, 2011, Santa Barbara News Press



On Christmas Eve, Edgar Wesson and Maria Long have prepared the warming center at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara on Santa Barbara Street.




The warming center provides clothing for guests.

December 25, 2011 7:16 AM

Some who stayed at the Freedom Warming Centers' Santa Barbara location over the weekend couldn't remember the last time they had decorated a Christmas tree.

But when the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara opened its doors to those in need of shelter Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, guests had the chance to adorn a donated, 8-foot-high noble fir with shimmering red ornaments, and to fall asleep against the backdrop of the tree's soft lighting.

"It's those little details that bring the joys of our childhood," said Maria Long, county coordinator for Freedom Warming Centers.

Due to low overnight temperatures, the operation's four locations in Santa Barbara, Isla Vista, Lompoc and Santa Maria were open for three days in a row, including Christmas Eve.

At the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara on Christmas Eve night, the weather was cold. But the atmosphere couldn't have been warmer as organizers and volunteers accepted at least 28 "guests," as they call their homeless visitors.

While many people were celebrating the holiday with family in the comfort of their own homes, the program's staff members, as well as medical workers from the nonprofit organization Doctors without Walls, sacrificed their Christmas Eve plans to lend a hand to those seeking refuge after forecasts of cold triggered the opening of centers countywide.

After the Unitarian Society's 5 p.m. Christmas Eve service, choir members from the group also joined guests in the courtyard to sing a chorus of "Silent Night."

For those guests who live far from family, Saturday night was, in a sense, like spending the holiday with surrogate family. David Fortenbury, whose loved ones all live in Florida, said the Christmas holiday can be especially difficult.

"When you ain't got family around, there isn't a reason to be merry," he said.

So, Mr. Fortenbury said, at Christmastime, the "houseless" population becomes one's family. Mr. Fortenbury, who helps in any way he can at the center, tried to find ways to spread Christmas cheer. Noticing that the tree at the Unitarian Society's room didn't have a star, he decided to make his own out of paper.

"A Christmas tree's not a tree without a star," he said, smiling.

Ms. Long said the Freedom Warming Centers, funded by the county, city, faith-based organizations and generous individuals, exist to meet basic human needs of as many people as possible.

The Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, 1535 Santa Barbara St., handles administrative functions.

"We are morally obligated to serve those who are most vulnerable," said Nancy Edmundson, director of administration at the Unitarian Society.

What truly makes the operation, said Ms. Long, are the many facets of the community that pull together to make it possible.

"It's really beautiful because it takes so many people to pull this together," Ms. Long said. "Makes you believe in the goodness of people."

Most of the program's guests are men 35 and older, although women and even couples sometimes enter its doors.

Many guests are, in a sense, the last in line, Ms. Long said. Many have been rejected from typical shelters for mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction or some other reason. Some simply don't fit in the typical shelter scene.

"There are no qualifications," for the warming centers, said Program Director Edgar Wesson, or "Big Ed," as he is better known. "Just show up. Just show up, and we're here to help."

That was the message of Doctors without Walls, too, which was set up in the courtyard at the Unitarian Church Saturday night to give basic medical aid.

"The whole goal of street medicine is to find and take care of the patient population that is slipping through the cracks," said Jason Prystowsky, medical director for Doctors without Walls.

This year, the Christmas holiday and cold weather happened to coincide, but the centers don't necessarily have the funding to keep their doors open each year over Christmas.

With funding for just 40 nights for the winter, Ms. Long has to keep a close eye on forecasts and use discretion as to when to activate the centers.

The county's four warming centers open their doors when rain, or temperatures below 35 degrees, are in the forecast from mid-November through March.

Mr. Wesson is working to have the shelters open every New Year's Eve and Christmas, not just when cold weather comes. For him, the message is a simple one.

"We're there just to serve, and to give the best service and to let them know there's a community there that loves them," he said.

For updates on the status of the Freedom Warming Centers, call its hotline at 324-2372. Donations and volunteer inquiries can be made to Ms. Long at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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