Spinning our Wheels

Can the debate over homeless services come to terms with the need for drug and alcohol treatment? 

Over the last few months, sharp disagreement on what needs to done about crime and homelessness has polarized the city council, homeless service advocates and neighborhood safety groups, not to mention the larger community.

With total arrests for all types of crime up more than 50 percent between 2011 and 2012, and with 42 percent of offenders booked in county jail being homeless, transients, or having given the address of the Homeless Services Center (HSC) as their residence, Santa Cruz Deputy Chief of Police Rick Martinez says the city is at a critical “tipping point” in addressing drug addiction and homelessness.

With budget season coming up for the city, Vice Mayor Lynn Robinson has called for close scrutiny of some city-funded homeless services she claims are enabling and facilitating the dangerous and dysfunctional behavior that she and others find so obnoxious around town, but particularly around the HSC. Robinson claims some of these services, particularly the Day Use Services, show little evidence of reducing homelessness.

While much of the discussion about these issues has been inflamed by sometimes nasty accusations and inaccurate stereotypes posted by all sides of the debate on online news articles and all over social media, these issues were discussed with surprising civility at the city council’s Tuesday, April 30 “Study Session on Homelessness,” where most testimony supported continued funding of homeless services.

In terms of efficient use of resources, the need to focus on drug addicts and chronic inebriates is supported by the data. The staff report for the city council’s study session included the striking statistic that only 325 individuals accounted for 62 percent of the 2,044 arrested who reported they were homeless, transient, or gave the HSC as their address in 2012. That means 325 homeless individuals, representing just under 12 percent of the known homeless population, were arrested 1,259 times in 2012. According to the staff report, “That equates to 3.9 arrests annually for each of these 325 people … [a] smaller pool of individuals are incurring a staggering number of arrests and consuming an inordinate amount of public safety resources.”

According to several spokespersons supporting continued funding of homeless services, common ground may be found with those enraged about crime and a degrading of public spaces attributed to the homeless with proven, evidence-based programs targeted at the chronically homeless, drug addicts and chronic inebriates. These include a “housing first” program, with support services, aimed at 180 of the most vulnerable, most needy and most expensive of the chronically homeless, according Phil Kramer, project director of the 180/180 Campaign.

The campaign, launched in Santa Cruz last spring, is based on evidence from other cities that show that a very small percentage of the homeless, particularly chronic inebriates and the mentally ill, are responsible for most of the public cost of emergency services for the homeless, accrued by police calls, ambulance services, emergency room hospital treatment, and jail.

For repeat drug offenders, Martinez is a strong supporter of additional and more effective drug treatment programs, including a lock-down facility designed to treat drug addicts and additional court-ordered drug and alcohol treatment programs.

“Nothing we’ve put out there is breaking the cycle of drug addiction,” Martinez says. And with state-ordered realignment (AB 109) mandating reduced jail time and increased probation for non-serious, drug-related offenses, Martinez says the result is often “a revolving door without consequences.” 

Because drug treatment programs are so heavily overbooked, Martinez says there is “nowhere for them to go,” if and when an addict gets serious about getting clean. 

Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel, pastor of The Circle Church, on the Westside, moderated the April 24 “Homelessness and Our Hometown” forum at Santa Cruz High School, which he opened with his own story of trying with more than 50 phone calls to find a place for a homeless alcoholic to detox and get services. He said that he was finally advised by an unnamed service provider to seek help for this person outside of Santa Cruz County. 

“For all the myths that we have so many services for the homeless in Santa Cruz,” Pastor Steve, as he’s known, told the forum’s audience of about 250 attendees, “try to get someone into one, and watch the bureaucracy rise up against you.”

Pastor Steve believes that homelessness, in and of itself, is not a driver of violent crime. “Addiction, whether you live in a house or not, is a major source of violent crime,” he says.  

Following the April 15 closure of the winter emergency shelter at the Armory, there are approximately 300 emergency shelter beds available in the county, serving only about 10 percent of the 2,771 homeless persons counted in the most recent “Point-in-Time Homeless Census and Survey,” completed in 2011. Based on service delivery data, it is estimated that upward of 80 percent of the homeless do not access any publicly funded services at all, casting doubt on one of the popular local theories that Santa Cruz’s homeless services act as a draw for homeless persons from other areas.    

But, says Analicia Cube, co-founder of Take Back Santa Cruz (TBSC), Santa Cruz is a “magnet for people to come here and commit crimes.” According to Cube, the message Santa Cruz has sent out around the state has been “if you want cheap, black tar heroin, come to Santa Cruz. And addicts travel here, sometimes hundreds of miles, to get their drugs, and they keep coming and going until they often got stuck here, and then they stay.”

Cube says our message should be that, “We’re a loving, eclectic, open-minded community, but as a community, we will not tolerate or enable criminal activity. People have had it.” 

“Everybody in this town deserves a level of safety,” Cube adds, “including homeless people on the street who are preyed upon by criminals.”

She believes TBSC has been mischaracterized as “anti-homeless,” when the real mission of the diverse, grassroots organization is reducing crime.

“I’ve said over and over, it’s about the criminals that hide under the umbrella of homelessness, and making this distinction is critical,” Cube says.  

Referring to the non residential Day Use Programs at the HSC and the long-term homelessness of many of the people who use these programs, Robinson wonders at what point the city can admit that some programs are not working to move people out of homelessness, and that it has been consequentially “enabling” a dependence on those services.

“We need to have that conversation,” Robinson says. “Is it two years, five years, a decade? At what point do you say the system is not working … that the status quo is not delivering the desired outcomes, but supporting a comfort zone that for some goes on indefinitely?”

Councilmember Don Lane, however, worries that effective programs could be harmed in this process.

“I’m not a defender of the status quo,” says  Lane, “but I get nervous when people take the ‘pull the rug out from under the entire operation’ approach. Yes, there are flaws and inefficient use of resources, [but they go] right along with very effective programs that are working, like our family shelter.”   

While Lane says he has supported the “tough love” policies of the city over the last several years (meaning homeless camp eradications, enforcement of the sleeping ban and holding people accountable, which has drawn fire from many homeless advocates), he questions where the ”love” part of that policy is—which he says would be programs that will provide real pathways out of homelessness. Lane advocates for evidenced-based, “smart solutions” that have proven to work in other cities to reduce homelessness, such as the 180/180 Campaign.

“The only thing worse than not solving a problem is addressing the wrong problem—that can often make the real problem worse,” says Claudia Brown, board chair of the HSC. “If we can begin with fact-based definition of the problem, and couple that with tested, evidence-based solutions, then we might make some progress. If we don’t start with facts, and don’t borrow from the proven experience of others, then we’re just spinning our wheels.”

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