One night in 2018, Marcus Kelly was sleeping in a grove off Highway 9 when two Santa Cruz park rangers came slashing into his tent, knives drawn. One of the rangers leaned into the tent, remembers Kelly, who is homeless, while the other stepped inside it to yell, “We want you to get your shit and get out of here!”
Because Kelly and his friends didn’t know where else to go, they returned the following night, he says, only to be awoken at 3am by a firebomb thrown into their camp from a car speeding up Highway 9. Over the past five years, Kelly says he has had store managers threaten him, and has had to dodge out of the way in crosswalks as angry drivers tried to run him over with their cars. “Once people know you’re homeless, you’re a pariah in this town,” says Kelly, who worked in Santa Cruz as a security guard until his employer went under in 2015. Both the company and Kelly’s life “spiraled out of control” quickly that year, he says, “right about the same time.”
Recently, Kelly—a cancer and stroke survivor who suffers from an immune deficiency syndrome—has been staying in a room on the Housing Matters campus, the Harvey West hub of shelter and homeless services. Kelly is waiting on test results while recovering from some of his various ailments. But as soon he’s feeling better, Kelly may find himself out on the streets once again—as much as his advocates would prefer to prevent it from happening.
“I wish we had housing ready for him right now,” Housing Matters Executive Director Phil Kramer tells GT.
Finding housing in Santa Cruz for someone like Kelly isn’t simple—and not just because of the town’s sky-high rents. After five years of homelessness, Kelly isn’t choosy about finding a place to live, but some homes fit his needs better than others. On top of his layered health problems, Kelly is a recovering drug addict. (He traces his old drug habits to the lifestyle and odd hours he kept as a security guard.) Kelly was lucky enough to land a treasured housing voucher a couple of years ago, and he leveraged the rental subsidy into an apartment of his own. But after he relapsed and started using again, the landlord evicted him. Kelly also needs reminders to take his many daily medications. “I get complacent with compliance,” he says.
What chronically homeless individuals like Kelly really need, Kramer explains, is a unit in an apartment complex with robust social services nearby. It’s a framework sometimes called “permanent supportive housing,” and it’s a proven model of housing and services, although it doesn’t exist yet in Santa Cruz County. It’s the exact kind of housing that could be soon on the way to the Housing Matters site. Housing Matters just submitted an application, jointly with New Way Homes, for a 121-unit, five-story housing complex on the nonprofit’s campus. The first floor would give space to a brand new Recuperative Care Center and offices for an expanded team of case managers, who are in charge of making sure clients like Kelly stay out of the emergency room and get the help they need.
The concept for the building first came up about four years ago, after Kramer attended a meeting with healthcare leaders. Together, Kramer and the medical experts discussed how the chronically homeless were getting released from the Recuperative Care Center and back onto the streets, where many of them found it nearly impossible to lead healthy lives. In the meeting, Kramer found himself daydreaming about how nice it would be for a patient to be able to leave the campus’ care center and somehow just move into a brand new apartment right upstairs.
When Kramer returned to the campus that day, he ran into Sibley Simon, board treasurer for Housing Matters—which was known at the time as the Homeless Services Center. As the two of them strolled over to a picnic table to sit down, Kramer updated Simon on the long conversation he’d just had. “We had a seat and mulled over what turned into an idea,” Kramer says.
The two of them started looking around at the campus’ one-story buildings. Simon remembers the two quickly came to an epiphany: “We should be trying to build up here.”
They got to work. The initial plan was to build 100 units of permanent supportive housing where the River Street Shelter is now. That concept got mired in unfortunate bureaucratic headaches, as the city owns some of that land, which sits above a six-foot-wide storm drainage pipe. Simon put the concept on hiatus until recently, when changes in state law allowed a different iteration of the plan to move forward.
This newest plan is for a housing complex where the Page Smith Community House is. As it happens, federal funding for transitional housing, like those Page Smith homes, has been steadily drying up. That makes that program the least sustainably-funded operation on the Housing Matters campus, Simon says, and its future has already been in question. Money for long-term housing on the other hand, has been growing. That’s partly because housing the homeless saves governments, hospitals and everyone else lots of money. And cutting down on those community-wide costs is one of the central goals of the new Housing Matters-New Way Homes proposal.
“This is really the core of all those charts from all the studies, all over the country on chronic homelessness—where it costs us tens of thousands of dollars less per year as a community to support that individual with some services in housing,” says Simon, who founded New Way Homes, an impact investment fund, and serves as its president.
In submitting this application, Simon is leveraging a new density-bonus law—one that allows developers to build higher and waive parking requirements if 100% of their units are available to low-income tenants. If this particular project gets approved, the tenants moving in will all have housing vouchers, like the ones reserved for veterans or the Section 8 vouchers that are distributed by the Housing Authority. The project’s main funding source, Simon says, will be debt that will be paid off over the years by the rent from those vouchers. (New Way Homes will also be raising money to help cover the costs.)
Frequently, when a local homeless individual does get their hands on one of these all-important vouchers and starts working with housing navigators to apply for places to live, they find themselves stigmatized by local landlords. Such vouchers sometimes even expire before the voucher holder can find themselves a place to live.
Simon says his proposed project would reduce that strain, especially because the proposal targets the chronically homeless—those with disabling conditions and who have been unhoused for a long time. The dozens of people moving in will be the ones most likely to struggle when adjusting to a new home. They are the most difficult clients to house and also the most difficult ones to keep housed. Simon says that keeping a roof over their heads will greatly improve the overall success rate of the 180/2020 initiative, a project he and Kramer helped found in 2012 that aims to end chronic homelessness locally.
Although the chronically homeless are a fraction of the local transient population, their impact on the broader community can be much bigger. They’re more likely to have the cops called on them or to find themselves in the emergency room. They may suffer from substance abuse disorders or from mental illness. For all the diversity in the homeless community, it is these individuals who are the most visible, and they create the largest neighborhood impacts, says Cassie Blom, Housing Matters’ assistant communications director. “For a lot of housed people, that is the face of homelessness,” she explains.
Blom, Simon and Kramer argue that’s a big reason to support this project. Housing the chronically homeless in a project like this one, they say, should ameliorate the nuisances that irritate community members who view homelessness as more of an eyesore than a crisis.
At its core, however, the project from Housing Matters and New Way Homes is really aimed at doing something more important: saving lives.
“I’m not trying to sound hyperbolic,” Kramer says, “but these are people who are at risk of dying on the streets without proper housing—and the support to go along with it.”
New Way Homes and Housing Matters will host online webinars about the project for those interested in learning more, asking questions, and giving initial input. Webinars are scheduled for Thursday, April 2, at both 9am and 6pm. Anyone interested can sign up at housingmatterssc.org/psh-webinars. The organizations hope to have an in-person public meeting once the county’s COVID-19-related public health guidance against large events is lifted.