BY KARA SHOEMAKER | December 8, 2021
When you think of the Santa Ynez Valley, images of rolling vineyards, golden ranch pastures, high-end restaurants and boutique hotels probably come to mind – but as with many other communities in Santa Barbara County, there are families in the Valley that are struggling to make ends meet. Fortunately, Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People (PHP) is there to lift up community members who need a helping hand.
Founded in 1992, PHP is dedicated to improving the lives of adults and children in the Santa Ynez Valley, Los Alamos, and surrounding areas by addressing emergency and basic needs and providing comprehensive integrated family and individual support services.
In short, they do just about everything and serve as one of the valley’s only social service agencies. They offer 19 different programs, including services for seniors, rent and utility payment assistant, food distribution, counseling, health care, domestic violence prevention, education around diversity, equity and inclusion, and so much more. Whatever a family needs, whether it’s a hot meal, a safe place to sleep, or academic help for a child, the caring individuals at PHP work to connect them with the right services and support. This holistic and hands-on approach to providing services has become even more important in the wake of the pandemic.
Addressing Hunger in the Valley
“The demand for our services has just gone off the charts since the pandemic began. We are experiencing levels we have never seen here around housing insecurity, and food insecurity, and we have increased our mental wellness and counseling programs,” shared Valerie Kissell, CEO of PHP. “Up here its agriculture or hospitality, and these two areas were hit hard. Places closed and people lost their income. People had to make choices whether to pay rent or buy food and medicine.”
Kissell joined PHP just after the pandemic started in 2020. As a longtime Solvang resident with a passion for serving vulnerable communities, Kissell didn’t miss a beat when PHP leaped into emergency services mode. PHP has been a leader in coordinating emergency relief efforts in the valley, and their support services have become vital.
“At the start of the pandemic PHP quickly ramped up their emergency services to assist those experiencing financial crisis due to COVID-19, including their food distributions, rental assistance to help prevent eviction, utility assistance, behavioral and mental wellness services for both youth and families, senior services and vaccine rollout outreach and education,” said Deanna Vallejo, Santa Barbara Foundation Community Grants Program Officer. “The Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People is such an important and fundamental organization helping improve the lives of those in need in the Valley.”
To help PHP meet radically increased community needs, the Santa Barbara Foundation awarded the organization a $15,000 Food Grant in 2020, as well as $40,000 in COVID-19 Response Grants over the past two years.
Food insecurity skyrocketed during the pandemic, and food distribution became a top priority for the organization. Today, PHP continues to provide 2,800 individuals with meals each week and works closely with the Santa Barbara County Food Bank, Veggie Rescue, Albertsons “Fresh Rescue,” The Baker’s Table and Feed the Valley to get fresh nutritious food into the pantries of Santa Ynez Valley residents.
“Distribution happens on a weekly basis in Solvang at the Mission, where we see 300 families a week and then again in Los Alamos where we see 150 families a week,” said Kissell. “We have Fresh Rescue on Tuesdays and Fridays where people can come and access food that is delivered by a number of different sources and community partners. We also deliver food on Thursday and Fridays to about 80 families and individuals, and provide food packs on weekends to kids in elementary schools who are alone all weekend as their parents work.”
PHP recently organized a Turkey Drive, with drop off locations throughout the valley, to ensure a happy Thanksgiving for local families in need. The annual Holiday Boutique “Fulfill A Wish” is set for December 17th and 18th at the Veterans Hall in Solvang. As the authorized agent for Toys 4 Tots, PHP is partnering with 30 local businesses to collect toys for our children. These gifts, along with warm coats and other household items, will be available for our local families that would otherwise go without. Families will be able to select from a large assortment of gift items that meet their specific needs.
Navigating the Housing Crisis
A recent canvass of the valley has identified persons and families that are experiencing homelessness in numbers never seen in this community. These findings show an increase in single moms with children living in vehicles, as well as an increase in the number of individuals age 62 or older facing homelessness. Accordingly, PHP has seen demand for housing stabilization services increase by a startling 426 percent over the past two years.
“In the past, when you think of the Santa Ynez area, you don’t think of people experiencing homelessness. But there has been a dramatic increase in people experiencing homelessness, specifically in terms of folks living in their cars,” said Kissell.
PHP provides intensive case management and housing navigation for clients in order to help them find and retain stable housing. Their case managers work with many individuals and families that have language and other cultural barriers that make accessing mainstream benefits more challenging. Since July 2020, PHP has provided $55,575 in rent assistance to help keep families in their homes.
But PHP isn’t alone in their efforts to support Santa Ynez Valley residents facing housing insecurity. In addition to partnering with faith-based organizations and other local nonprofits, individuals in the community have been eager to step up to help their neighbors.
“Something that really strikes me about this community is how everyone really rallied together to solve these problems. For example, we were doing housing insecurity presentations, indicating the level of need, and afterwards people came up and asked ‘How can we help? We want to help a family.’” explained Kissell. “So we did case conferencing, where we matched up families facing housing insecurity, with those who wanted to provide support. As a result, right now we have three families who have been ‘adopted’ by other families. Those families are giving them rental support to help keep them in their homes. I think that is a testament to how people come together in this community to solve issues.”
Looking to the Future
Through thick and thin, SYV People Helping People is here to help the valley and surrounding communities thrive.
“I remain hopeful and very optimistic. People are resilient, and no matter what is thrown at us we seem to figure out a way,” said Kissell. “We don’t know what will happen in the future, we can only stay open to the possibilities and pivot to do what’s necessary to keep uplifting people. We just have to keep moving forward.”
Need assistance? Learn more about SYV People Helping People’s services: www.syvphp.org/need-help
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