On topics like homelessness and public safety, a saying sometimes gets kicked around about the town of Santa Cruz that it’s “a small surf city with big-city problems.”
When it comes to doling out funds at the the state level, though, housing regulators and their chosen algorithms won’t find that argument convincing—certainly not in the current fiscal year.
Under a new state budget, Santa Cruz County will see a fresh round of homeless funding, although not as much as some advocates would have hoped for.
As California lawmakers finalized a budget late last month, a deal emerged between Democratic legislators and Gov. Gavin Newsom. Under a new bill, the state is getting ready to hand out more than $2 billion in housing and homelessness funding this year, with $650 million in grants going to local governments to combat homelessness. Of that, $275 million, or 43 percent, will go to just 13 cities, all of them with populations over 300,000 residents.
The rest will go to counties and regional agencies like the Homeless Action Partnership, which is overseen by Santa Cruz County. Agencies and jurisdictions will apply for their share, and the Housing and Community Development Department will divvy up the money based on the homeless populations in each region’s point-in-time (PIT) count results.
That element raised some concern locally. That’s because, while many governments saw their counted homeless populations climb this year, Santa Cruz County’s fell slightly compared to two years earlier. That could mean an even smaller slice of homeless funds locally.
However, Russ Heimerich, a spokesperson for the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, assures GT that regulators are working on a process for governments to apply with PIT count numbers from 2017, when volunteers counted 3.6 percent more homeless individuals in the biannual census.
ENVIRONMENT FOR CHANGE
The new legislation includes a number of changes, including a provision to streamline the approval processes for some homeless facilities. New navigation centers will now be exempt from complying with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
The bill defines navigation centers as “low-barrier” homeless shelters that are rich in services and that prioritize moving homeless individuals into permanent housing. In the midst of a housing and homelessness crisis, advocates have been fighting to tear down barriers to new housing and homeless facilities. Many argue that these barriers include not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) groups which weaponize environmental law to slow down otherwise popular projects in their neighborhoods. The Los Angeles Times editorial board recently criticized this process in a piece titled “Stop Using California’s Environmental Laws to Block Homeless Housing.”
Looking ahead, Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin says the county has a vision for a navigation center in North County and another in South County. “The community has to buy into that,” he says. “That’s where the rubber hits the road. There’s general consensus on the need for a navigation center. We just don’t know where at this point.”
When it comes to public input, Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley) has concerns about the impact of bypassing CEQA, although he voted for the wide-ranging bill. He tells GT in a statement that CEQA gets unfairly blamed as an “as an impediment to solving homelessness.”
“It is an important law that ensures public participation in any land use decision,” the statement reads. Stone adds that he feels “disappointed” that more homeless dollars will not be coming to Santa Cruz County, compared with some other communities.
There was, however, a previous round of state funding awarded earlier this year that brought in more than $10 million locally for the homeless. Of that, the Homeless Action Partnership identified $1 million for a future navigation center. It also awarded the city of Santa Cruz $1.4 million to purchase land near the Homeless Services Center (HSC) with the intention of expanding services.
At the state level, the recent bill also includes a plan to introduce “bonus points” in grant application processes to communities that regulators deem pro-housing.
Perhaps the aspect of the bill that’s gotten the most attention is a change that could force some governments to pay fines for flouting state housing laws that require them to plan for new housing growth. Fewer than 50 cities are in violation, many of them rural communities and none of them in Santa Cruz County. On Gimme Shelter: The California Housing Crisis Podcast, reporter Liam Dillon remarked that a city would have to thumb its nose at the state for years before facing any serious repercussions.
“It’s really hard to imagine a world where anything like this would actually come to fruition,” said Dillon, of the L.A. Times.
COUNTING ON IT
Phil Kramer, executive director of HSC, says that before the preliminary PIT count results came out, a slight dip in the homeless population was not what he’d been expecting.
“It doesn’t feel to us like there has been a decrease,” he says, still trying to make sense of the figures. “We were surprised by the numbers, yet gratified to see that there was a reduction.”
Hoppin says he believes the findings. Locals may have perceived homelessness to be soaring when the homeless encampment behind the Ross department store popped up, partly because it garnered so much coverage as it ballooned in size.
“There’s a cognitive bias that happens when there’s so much media attention,” says Hoppin, a former reporter for the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
Peter Connery—vice president of Applied Survey Research (ASR), which manages the count— explains that he wouldn’t say that homlessness is down, necessarily. Rather, he frames the results as showing that homelessness has stayed about the same, falling by just 82 counted individuals to a total of 2,167 homeless people this year. The full census report will come out later this summer.
ASR oversees homeless counts for a dozen communities on the West Coast. For each count, the group sends volunteers and researchers to get a head count of the amount of homeless they can find one morning in January. Although ASR keeps its methods consistent from one year to the next and across all communities, Connery knows that the figures probably end up representing an “undercount.”
“There are probably folks on the day that we weren’t able to count,” he says, “but that’s probably true of any count that has a one-day scope.”