Fr. Virgil Cordano Center is a collaborative ministry of the Franciscan Friars at the Old Mission of Santa Barbara and the Daughters of Charity at St. Vincent's that is rooted in the Gospel and the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church. Faithful to the traditions of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Vincent de Paul, we provide a place of welcome and support for human and spiritual well-being for our sisters and brothers in need.

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On February 13th, 2024, St. Vincent’s Associates, attended the University of California, Santa Barbara’s (UCSB) annual Arthur N. Rupe Great Debate. This year’s debate, titled “Is Housing a Human Right?,” directly aligns with our mission as one of the largest providers of affordable housing for low-income seniors and families in Santa Barbara. As the organization behind the city’s first day-center for people experiencing homelessness, the Fr. Virgil Cordano Center (a collaboration with the Franciscan Friars of Old Mission), we were eager to attend this important debate. Although, over the years we have acquired a considerable experience providing direct assistance and referral services to our brothers and sisters living in poverty, we have much more to learn from other organizations, government officials, and scholars who shape the narratives and craft solutions to address the chronic lack of affordable housing and homelessness in California. 

The debate took place in UCSB’s Campbell Hall, drawing an audience of close to 100 people. Four panelists and one special guest shared their perspectives on the right to safe and permanent housing. Each of the speakers possesses a notable scholarly and/or professional background in researching and writing about homelessness. The special guest, Jessica Castillo-Tapia, offered a particularly poignant testimony, sharing her own lived experiences with unsafe housing as a child and young adult. 

Campbell Hall, University of California Santa Barbara
Source: UCSB IEE

Answering the question “Is housing a human right?” has both practical and philosophical implications. On the philosophical level, this question interrogates our values and reveals our collective understanding of social justice. It invites us to consider the kind of society that we hope to create for ourselves and future generations, and whether we have a responsibility to each other to ensure availability of safe and affordable housing. If a philosophical consensus could be reached, and depending on how we choose to articulate our values, we can conceive housing policies that would shape the housing market for generations to come. This, in turn, brings practical challenges of funding, construction, environmental protection, and creation of public or private agencies responsible for bringing our vision of an equitable housing system (or “society with housing security for all”), however we might choose to define it, to life. Conversely, we might eschew any responsibility over the housing questions on philosophical grounds and allow the market to dictate who has access to housing, potentially exacerbating social inequalities and homelessness. 

These and other considerations informed the panelists’ responses to the questions posed by the event’s moderator, Larry Mantle. As all but one panelist agreed that access to safe permanent housing should be a human right, the discussion lacked the typical for big-issue debates polarizing remarks and sparring commentary. However, the absence of divisive rhetoric did not affect the depth and insightfulness of the speakers’ statements. The speakers cited persuasive statistics and referenced the stories of success in the fight against the scourge of homelessness like the state of Texas, which recorded a 28% drop in homelessness since 2012, while California’s homeless population grew by 43%. The panelists agreed on the need for decisive legislative action but could not find a common ground on the specific policies that could reverse the alarming trend of homelessness in California. The Housing First model, a housing assistance program that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, was frequently debated by the panelists, moderator, and even audience. The program has many merits, but its full potential, the panelists agreed, could only be fully realized when the residents have access to a host of supportive resources, proactive case management, and environment conducive to recovery.  

Among the range of different topics that the panelists discussed during the event, two items captured our attention and warranted further contemplation. The first emerged during the Q&A session. When posing a longwinded question, a member of the audience suggested that people who become homeless are to blame for the irresponsible choices that they made in their lives. Thus, the rest of society bears little to no responsibility for “putting a roof over people’s heads who made poor choices throughout their lives.” This comment is an example of a deeply entrenched and erroneous myth about homeless people. Extensive research demonstrates that people become homeless due to many intersectional factors, including but not limited to the chronic lack of affordable housing, significant economic hardship, physical disability, mental health, absence of social support, domestic violence, and substance abuse. Our experiences working at the Fr. Virgil Cordano Center taught us that homelessness is a complex issue; it cannot be defined by a single caricatured profile of a houseless person. Attempts to reduce the issue of homelessness to a simple case of poor individual choices wrapped in the stigma of addiction will not provide effective solutions. On the contrary, this simplistic view encourages public apathy, or worse, disdain towards our homeless neighbors. 

The second topic that caught our attention and, in our estimation, is worth contemplating is the recent financial trend and accompanying cultural phenomenon of conceiving the housing market exclusively as a profitable investment opportunity. The soaring housing costs lured investment companies and hedge funds with millions of dollars in reserves to buy up many single-family homes, thus denying ordinary families the opportunity to compete in the housing market. Indeed, in the recent past an entire financial industry has emerged focused entirely on purchasing residential properties, often evicting entire communities, to make way for superficially refurbished and unaffordable residences that drive up the rental prices making it increasingly difficult for families to find a place to live. This is what happened in our own neighborhood, in Isla-Vista, when the CBC & The Sweeps apartment complex was bought by Core Spaces, a Chicago-based developer that specializes in converting existing buildings into swanky college apartments. The blind commercialization of real-estate has shifted the public perception of housing as equity generators rather than a place where people live, grow, rest, and thrive. The relentless pursuit of financial gain, driven in part by the greed of large financial institutions and hedge funds, has exacerbated the housing crisis in California and warped the public’s view of housing as a lucrative investment opportunity more than anything else. 

As we try to find viable solutions to address the acute shortage of affordable housing in Santa Barbara, the debate on whether we should recognize housing as a human right will remain a contested topic of discussion for decades to come. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of time. As the number of homeless individuals in our beloved city continues to grow, St. Vincent’s and the Fr. Virgil Cordano Center (FVCC) offer a range of support services, including plans to build affordable permanent housing for our homeless sisters and brothers. We invite you to join our efforts to turn the tide of despair and light the way for those in need! 

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