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News2 homelessNew study challenges conventional wisdom about homelessness in Santa Cruz

[Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part series on homelessness. Part one ran last week.]

A new study finds most homeless people come to Santa Cruz for the same reasons as those with homes—for the excellent climate, the beaches, the open spaces, and the tolerant, progressive culture.

Contrary to what many consider the “magnet effect” that Santa Cruz has for attracting the homeless, most of them do not come here for benefits, free food or shelter.  

These are some of the findings of the recent study conducted by UCSC Community Studies, Sociology, and Psychology departments, in partnership with the local community engagement firm Civinomics. The results of the study, due to be released next month, challenges much of the long-held conventional wisdom about homelessness in Santa Cruz, and is likely to spark controversy on both sides of the issue.

One widely referenced statistic from the “2013 Point-in-Time (PIT) Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey” is that 72 percent of the 369 homeless people surveyed across the county reported they were housed in Santa Cruz County before becoming homeless.

Responding to more specific questions in the UCSC/Civinomics survey, within the City of Santa Cruz, only 38 percent of 101 homeless people reported Santa Cruz as their hometown. Perhaps most striking, of 62 homeless persons who did not identify Santa Cruz as their hometown, 41 of them, or 68 percent, were homeless when they arrived in Santa Cruz.   

The UCSC/Civinomics homeless study is one of the first of its kind to investigate and compare what residents and homeless think the causes and solutions to homelessness are, says Robert Singleton, one of the founders of Civinomics, which spearheads an Internet-based approach to public opinion polling. Singleton also says he was impressed that responses from the two groups were surprisingly consistent.      

According to Singleton, one of the most interesting results is the marked difference from roughly one-third “homeless when they arrived” throughout the county, according to the 2013 PIT Survey, to two-thirds “homeless when they arrived” in the City of Santa Cruz reported in the UCSC/Civinomics survey.

Singleton explains that given the often polarized debate about the causes and effects of homelessness in the community, the survey results are “collectively, a very nuanced and well-informed perspective about the issue of homelessness in the community that is very surprising and very positive.”

“You would think the levels of complexity surrounding this issue wouldn’t necessarily permeate the collective consciousness of the community, but it has,” says Singleton of the resident responses to the 33-question UCSC/Civinomics survey.

The responses of 394 city residents, randomly selected from an address list of city households, reflect genuine concern about homelessness as a critical public health and public safety issue, as well as an understanding of the diverse causes of homelessness. On critical questions regarding the number of “local homeless” versus “nonlocal homeless” and the “magnet effect” that Santa Cruz may appear to have on attracting homeless from other areas, residents were surprisingly aligned with responses of the homeless themselves.

The perception of Santa Cruz residents on the percentage of local, “homegrown” homelessness is closer to the UCSC/Civinomics data than the 2013 PIT Homeless Survey.

In response to the question “In your opinion, what percentage of homeless people came from outside of Santa Cruz County?” well over half of city residents who responded believe the majority of homeless come to Santa Cruz from elsewhere.   

This question of local versus nonlocal homelessness is for many at the heart of arguments over how “compassionate” Santa Cruz should be toward them—and whether that compassion could act like a magnet that increases the problem rather than solving it. It also begs the question of how long someone has to live in Santa Cruz to be considered “local,” and therefore deserving of the city’s compassion and services.

Drilling down on the survey data into how long “nonlocal” homeless people have been  living in Santa Cruz, the two sets of survey data are roughly consistent, but ask slightly different questions. Of the 62 “nonlocal” homeless respondents in the UCSC/Civinomics survey—41 of whom arrived in Santa Cruz homeless—23 percent reported they have been in Santa Cruz more than 10 years, 10 percent between five and 10 years, and 23 percent between three and five years, for a total of 56 percent living in Santa Cruz more than three years, without details about whether or not they have been regularly housed during their stay in Santa Cruz. However, 37 percent of the total number of homeless people surveyed—101 people—reported being homeless for more than five years.  

The 2013 PIT Homeless Census and Survey found that 53 percent reported living and being housed in Santa Cruz County for three or more years before becoming homeless, with 31 percent of those living in Santa Cruz for 10 years or more before becoming homeless.

“Santa Cruz is a town of transplants,” says Singleton, whose data shows that homeless came to Santa Cruz for many of the same reasons that most residents move here.

Only 19 percent of homeless respondents reported “benefits and available resources (shelter, food, etc.,)” as the key reason Santa Cruz attracts homeless people.  

Tabulating key words from narrative responses to the question, “Why do you think Santa Cruz attracts homeless people?,” 73 percent of homeless individuals say they believe that the natural, non-policy-related attractions like climate and beaches are what bring homeless people to Santa Cruz.

City Councilmember Richele Noroyan has been asking for more detailed city-specific data on the homeless for years. Noroyan has questioned the data of the PIT Homeless Census and Survey data, and has suggested better targeting of homeless services to “locals.” She takes issue when her comments are construed as “anti-homeless.”

“That is so not the case,” says Noroyan. “We need more detailed data to make more effective policies that actually work to end homelessness.”

Noroyan wants more information about why Santa Cruz is in the top 10 percent of cities in the nation in terms of the number of long-term, chronically homeless. “My concerns are not punitive, I just want more information so we can be more effective at addressing the problem,” Noroyan says.

The UCSC/ Civinomics data indicate that Santa Cruz residents are well aware of the complexity of the causes of homelessness, sensitive to the diverse “sub-populations” of homeless and the different needs they have. For example, 56 percent of Santa Cruz residents agree that untreated mental illness is the most significant factor causing people to become homeless, and 49 percent of homeless people reported having a diagnosed mental illness.                                                                                 

UCSC and Civinomics are currently writing the analysis and final report of the study.

Survey data and partial analysis is expected to be released by Civinomics in three to four weeks.


PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER

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