Santa Cruz continues to grapple with homelessness challenges
SANTA CRUZ — Santa Cruz County, with its miles of coastal access, temperate climate and acres of wooded areas, has long proven attractive – and barely affordable – to those both with access to housing and without.
Laws regulating when and where people can sleep outdoors date back more than four decades, particularly in Santa Cruz County’s most populous city and namesake. After lengthy revision, study, years of debate and a temporary nullification, Santa Cruz city leaders reinstated its no-camping ordinance this month, pending the creation of new homeless possession storage and safe overnight sleeping programs, in an effort to prevent large entrenched encampments. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has criticized iterations of the city ordinance, condemning the “increased regulations targeting unhoused individuals,” while Disability Rights California predicted the law would strengthen “the relationship between poverty and incarceration.”
Now-Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers in October pleaded with U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, California State Assemblyman Mark Stone and then soon-to-be-elected state Sen. John Laird to assist the city with its “dire” homelessness situation. She cited the city’s disproportionate share of people living without housing, estimated in a January 2019 homeless census to be at nearly 55%, compared to the 23% of the county’s total population living within city limits.
“It’s not sustainable for a city of 62,000 people to do this level of care of homeless individuals in Santa Cruz County,” Meyers said at the time. “It’s not sustainable for us.”
Santa Cruz County as a whole has one of the highest per-capita rates of homelessness in the state, with 79.3 homeless individuals per 10,000 residents, according to federally mandated homeless census reporting. Per the January 2019 Homeless Point-in-Time Count, there were 2,167 people experiencing homelessness in a county with 273,213 residents at the time. Meanwhile, the county’s biennial homeless counts from 2009 to 2019 averaged 2,677 people.
Nearly a year ago, the independent Santa Cruz County Grand Jury put together an 84-page report, “Homelessness: Big Problem, Little Progress: It’s Time To Think Outside The Box,” focusing on several areas the group believed were weak in local homelessness response.
“A lack of consistent funding makes it extremely challenging for organizations to plan more than a year in advance, nor does it allow for agencies to fund projects that may require many years to implement,” the July 2020 report reads. “As a result, a myriad of temporary fixes tend to receive emergency funding, inhibiting the effective implementation of long-term planning solutions leading to reactive and tactical rather than strategic planning.”
This year, the latest in a long series of strategic plans aiming to significantly reduce or even end homelessness across the county, two entities — one private, one public — with the most resources to invest in addressing countywide homelessness have released their own ambitious multiyear strategies to guide such efforts.
Leaders for both Santa Cruz County’s Housing for Health Division and Housing Matters, in presenting their respective plans, stressed that their efforts would not “solve” homelessness.
In the face of ever-growing tent enclaves along river levees, deep in wooded areas and in the form of sprawling highway and city park tent encampments, Santa Cruz County launched its Housing for Health Division in 2020, with elected officials then green-lighting the “Housing for a Healthy Santa Cruz: A Strategic Framework for Addressing Homelessness in Santa Cruz County” this spring, after nearly two years of work. The plan ambitiously quantifies its goals, aiming to reduce the number of unsheltered families or single residents by 50% and all homelessness by 25% by 2024.
Meanwhile, a federal district court injunction has prevented the City of Santa Cruz since December from closing down its largest concentrated homeless encampment, easily surpassing a required 120 tents sites, inside of San Lorenzo Park. A modification of the injunction, designed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, allowed the city only to relocate individuals and their camps from the upper park areas down into the river benchlands. As state COVID-19 restrictions wind down, a court status conference scheduled for next week may result in the dissolution of the injunction.
Caltrans workers have taken measures in recent weeks to disband two separate large unsanctioned homeless encampments along state-owned rights-of-way in Santa Cruz, one ranged along the four corners of the Highway 1/River Street intersection, the other stretched between the San Lorenzo River and Highway 1.
The city of Santa Cruz also is in the process of creating a 150-spot safe overnight sleeping program in coming months.
County Human Services Director Randy Morris told the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors in March, as it prepared to approve the Housing for a Healthy Santa Cruz plan, that continuing homeless encampments need to be acknowledged without overshadowing the larger conversation.
“And so how do we toggle between and deal with the tension of not getting lost and solely focused on what to do with encampments,” Morris said. “What we want is everybody to be housed and healthy, not just living in encampments, or better living in encampments.”
Housing Matters, a recently rebranded nonprofit in its 35th year of operations, released its own two-year strategic plan in March. Formerly known as the Homeless Services Center, the organization provides four emergency and transitional housing shelters for nearly 230 people, a medical clinic and a 12-bed medical respite care facility, a significant chunk of the county’s overall homeless shelter beds in a non-pandemic year.
During a public presentation on Housing Matters’ strategic plan in April, Executive Director Phil Kramer highlighted one of the nonprofit’s future goals. The organization has made a commitment, he said, to building a homeless “navigation center” style homeless shelter close to its Coral Street campus, located on the city’s outer limits in the Harvey West industrial/business park zone.
“I think that there’s a lot that we can do as a community, as a state, as a country, to help people out of their crisis and into long-term stable housing,” Kramer said, responding to whether or not he believed homelessness was an endemic societal condition. “But I think, sadly and unfortunately, we need to get at the root causes. Until we do that, we’re going to have people find themselves in this crisis situation. We need to do more to support people today, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Inevitably, local strategic planning efforts have been shaped by real-time adjustments made during the past 15 months of the coronavirus pandemic. Federal and state grants have flooded into the county, providing millions for Project Roomkey hotel shelter spaces, federal FEMA and Coronavirus Aid, Relief, Economic Security Act funds dedicated to sheltering, rehousing or keeping housed residents, repurposed U.S. Housing and Urban Development and other funding sources. Homeless shelter alone expanded to provide just short of 900 spaces, with nearly 500 new temporary beds brought online, county officials have said. According to the Santa Cruz city officials, the total shelter bed count is expected to shrink down to 370 shelter beds countywide — with 213 beds within city limits — once the emergency funding phases out.
Meanwhile, Encompass Community Services closed its three-decade-old 32-bed River Street Shelter in April and funding for hundreds of temporary pandemic-funded shelter beds will expire by Sept. 30. Additional remaining shelters include temporary county-run sites at the veterans’ halls in Watsonville and Santa Cruz and at the National Guard Armory at DeLaveaga Park in Santa Cruz, a rotating-site shelter program operated by the Association of Faith Communities, Pajaro Valley Shelter Services in Watsonville, Salvation Army sites and the Jesus, Mary and Joseph Home in Santa Cruz.
Of those homeless Santa Cruz County individuals counted in 2019, 78% were living outside of shelters. The gap between local housing costs and income levels was cited in the county’s census as the No. 1 cause of homelessness — some 31% of homeless individuals surveyed were employed. Additional contributing factors cited included health issues and lack of supportive connections.