From Homeless to Humanitarian: Luke Barrett’s Surprising Path to Civic Engagement

On a Monday evening in early February, twenty or so people who are homeless gather outside St. Michael’s Church for a free weekly dinner. A man who is homeless makes his way over to the small group of people seated at a table outside, moving slowly due to a disability. He’s looking for someone to pick him up from the hospital after his eye surgery later this month. Luke Barrett, a social worker who is seated at the table, listens intently to the man’s story, his blue eyes clear and focused. After confirming that the man has a place to rest after the operation, Luke shrugs his shoulders, “hey man, I’ll take you. When is it?” The homeless man seems flustered, but pleased. He obviously didn’t think it would be quite so easy to get help.

That’s Luke. He likes cutting through red tape.

Luke is the Regional Coordinator for the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H), a local nonprofit organization that works to end homelessness and mitigate its effects throughout Santa Barbara County. His job is to coordinate homeless services for all of south Santa Barbara, including access to housing, medical care, and other necessary resources. As Regional Coordinator, a position that was developed specifically for him to enable C3H to focus more on direct practice, Luke developed the concept of local, coordinated outreach teams composed of community members and student volunteers. By breaking down the problem into manageable pieces and operating on the level of community, Luke has developed an innovative response to the situation of the homeless that affords him small, daily ways to make an impact that reaches beyond his job description. He is an advocate who works behind the scenes, pushing every day for the right of the homeless community to have access to the care and the attention that they need to move forward with their lives.

Early Beginnings

Luke moved constantly throughout his childhood, living in parts of the country as diverse as Arkansas, Florida, and Michigan. Because his parents were regularly uprooting him, Luke was perpetually the new kid at school and never had a solid base to call home. Additionally, Luke has always been profoundly liberal, believing that “[both] housing and healthcare are human rights,” yet, growing up, he was surrounded by conservative influences, which left him without a true ideological home in addition to feelings of physical displacement.

This set of circumstances was not entirely to Luke’s detriment, both because he had the opportunity to travel all over the United States and because growing up in a conservative family forced him to reflect more deeply on his values and why he held them than the average teenager might have. From the beginning, Luke’s drive to protect the rights of the disadvantaged was tied to a streak of rebellion; Luke even comments that the strength of his value system, to begin with, was “maybe just in spite of my parents.” This urge to push back against authority and convention was so strong that, halfway through his senior year of high school, Luke packed up and moved to Hawaii — without telling his parents. Fairly quickly, he found himself homeless. For Luke, this was a choice that he embraced, and he stayed out of doors for two years, surfing, making lots of friends, and having “a great time.”

However, what might have had its roots in a spirit of teenage rebellion soon matured into a sense of responsibility to live out his progressive values in the world. From the time he was six years old, Luke knew that he wanted to be a doctor. Although he disliked school and hated hospitals, his drive to help others in a concrete capacity made working in the medical field an obvious choice. So, in the interests of pursuing this dream, Luke saved up some money and moved to Washington to attend university. That first night in Bellingham was rough, as Luke quickly discovered that being homeless in Washington was nothing like his extended vacation in Hawaii. Luke knew he had to get off the streets quickly, so, on his second day in Washington, he got a job flipping burgers. While not the most inspiring pastime, the work kept him housed. During his time in Washington, Luke enrolled in one university-level course, but he quickly realized that it was not the right time to attend college. Luke still wasn’t ready to be stuck in one place, and he needed a way to make a concrete impact that aligned with his values. So, instead of going to college, Luke switched to active duty with the coast guard.

Lessons from the Coast Guard

Throughout his time in the coast guard, which lasted a total of nine years, Luke found ways to give his desire to help others a central role. He worked in search and rescue, which gave him the chance to make a quantifiable impact, and took advantage of opportunities to advance his understanding of hands-on medical care. Luke was also offered a position as a member of the Maritime Law Enforcement Protection Team; a highly selective group composed of only fourteen members. The admissions process for MLEPT was, he says, “probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my entire life.” As a member of MLEPT, Luke had the opportunity to take part in a variety of medical trainings, leaving him with an EMT and the equivalent of a civilian paramedic, among other qualifications. Luke also went through dive school and learned how to jump out of helicopters, then eventually transferred to San Diego for a more supervisory role. Throughout this time, Luke kept his focus on the long-term goal of becoming a doctor, and he geared his trainings towards that end.

Doctors Without Walls and The Clinic at Path

After leaving the coast guard, Luke immediately got a mohawk — and moved to Santa Barbara to get on track for medical school. He enrolled at SBCC, then transferred to CSU Channel Islands for a Bachelor’s in Psychology. Although Luke was older than most of his classmates, this proved advantageous, as his experiences in the coast guard had shot him ahead of the curve when it came to subjects such as anatomy and physiology. Luke was a teacher’s assistant for both of these courses, and served as the coordinator for the cadaver dissection lab. Although he appreciated these opportunities, what he really missed was doing “medical stuff” on the ground.

In order to get back to practicing medical care, Luke joined Doctors Without Walls — Santa Barbara Street Medicine, a local organization, modeled off of the principles of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) that provides medical services for the homeless. After two years of volunteering, he became the Park Clinic Coordinator, which was as time-consuming as a full-time job. Additionally, all of his friends volunteered at DWW-SBSM. According to Luke, “my entire life revolved around DWW for a long time.”

About this time, Luke began to consider switching from the medical school route to becoming a physical therapist. He was deeply interested in “how disabled people are deprived of their dignity in our society,” so he began working at a PT clinic for people who are homeless at Path, a shelter in downtown Santa Barbara. Over a two-year period, the clinic saw 300 patients, many of whom were able to move forward with their lives after receiving the care that they needed. Even as he considered pursuing a career in physical therapy, Luke was frustrated with the lack of attention paid to underserved groups. His central complaint was, “why can’t physical therapists do more humanitarian work?”

The Shift towards Social Work

One night, Luke paid a visit to his friend Kim Mclenan’s house in Santa Barbara. Kim, who Luke describes as “just really inspiring,” has had direct experience with underserved communities in Haiti and Nepal, as well as locally. Over a drink, she turned his life in a new direction. “You’re good with patients,” Kim acknowledged, “but a lot of people are good with patients.” Luke’s true talent, she insisted, lay elsewhere. “You’re really good with figuring out where the need is and trying to fill it.” Kim pointed out to Luke that, if he became a doctor or a physical therapist, he would be able to help one person at a time. However, if he built a clinic, like the one at Path, then he could help many people at once. Luke knew that she was onto something, but he wasn’t happy about it. His conviction that he wanted to be a medical professional was so strong that he left that night feeling “really confused and kind of mad,” unsure of where to turn next.

Kim’s words stayed with Luke and, the more he reflected on them, the more he realized that he was interested, first and foremost, in “how you fix a big social problem with limited resources.” And so, when Luke learned about the Master’s program in social work at California State University, Northridge, he decided to apply. Luke’s time in school has always had a practical bent to it, rather than a theoretical one, and his decision to pursue graduate school was no different. Initially, Luke had thought that social work was mostly about therapy, which was not something he wanted to do, but after looking more closely at the opportunities available to him with an MSW he saw the advantage of pursuing higher education.

The Move towards Civic Engagement

Today, Luke is finishing up his last few classes at Northridge, interning 20 hours a week at Cottage Hospital, and working 40-plus hours a week at C3H. In the midst of this whirlwind of activities, Luke brings a refreshing directness, in particular, to his work with the homeless community. Luke is not shy about pointing out incompetence or inconsistencies where he sees them, and has little patience with those whose motivations are not pure. At the same time, he still carries with him a streak of stubborn idealism; Luke clearly believes in the work he is doing, and has a sense of ease and care with the homeless community. He can regularly be found having a casual conversation with a person who is homeless, and many, if not most, know him by name.

Over the years, Luke’s need to push against established conventions, combined with his drive to help others, has matured into a sense of responsibility to change oppressive systems, which are often “set up to help people fail.” When speaking about the injustices of homelessness, Luke is both perceptive and angry. A major source of stress in his life is that “politics impacts the welfare of [homeless] people on a daily basis.” Luke does not seem comfortable in such an environment, perhaps because it clashes with his own genuine nature, and admits that he hopes to get back to more direct practice soon. Although Luke doesn’t know whether he will always work on the issue of homelessness, he does know that his work will always be with underserved communities. As he remarks, with typical candor, “that’s just where I want to be.”

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