Reports conflict on whether Santa Cruz’s homeless problem is getting worse or better
It’s 7:45 on a Tuesday morning in Santa Cruz. The fog has lifted, but the air is still crisp, and people huddle together underneath layers of tattered coats.
Thirty people have gathered outside the meal hall at the Homeless Services Center’s shelter, located at 115 Coral St., but within 20 minutes that number doubles. It’s breakfast time and while most people keep to themselves—trying to focus on the upcoming meal instead of the cold—others wander outside the line, smoking cigarettes to kill time.
As the growing line begins to move, many eyes move to the mail room wall, which is plastered with handwritten notes like, “Juan, call your mother” and “Tia Carmen, we love you.”
Within the hour, well over 100 people are fed a meal of milk, pancakes, apple sauce and cereal or oatmeal. One can only imagine where they will go after HSC shuts down its shower and meal services to outside individuals this week.
“I’ll tell you one thing, it’s going to mean a lot of homeless in people’s backyards,” says Andy Carcello. The 58-year-old native Santa Cruzan tries to stay positive, but his sun-wrinkled eyes betray uncertainty. Born the son of a pharmacist and the grandson of a local farmer, Carcello never married or had children, and he’s spent most of his life in the area.
“It seemed like we just started getting Santa Cruz cleaned up,” Carcello says. “If you walked down the Pacific Garden Mall it was orderly. You know, I’d go and have a burrito in the San Lorenzo Park and it was clean. But now, with everyone dumped out in the street like this, it won’t be that way.”
For the past four years Carcello has been an active resident at the Homeless Services Center. However, as of July 5, he and 14 others will be evicted from the Center’s temporary Page Smith housing.
In addition to the evictions and closing the kitchen and showers to outside individuals, 17 staff members were laid off, including security, program managers and case managers. The cuts follow a recent loss of $650,000 in emergency grant funds that have been awarded to the shelter for the past decade.
“There were a couple of factors that didn’t allow us access to the grants,” says HSC Executive Director Jannan Thomas.
One of these factors seems to be purely bureaucratic.
“Our reports are [represented] by individuals, not by households or heads of households,” Thomas explains. “So [the state] ended up discounting that data and not considering it at all. The state knew there was an issue in how they wanted the data reported versus how it was coming out of the Homeless Management Information System. They tried providing some technical assistance, but we couldn’t figure out how to do it on our end to make it work in the way the state wanted.”
Other factors included a low turnover rate of residents from emergency shelters into permanent housing.
“That means, moving forward, we’re going to have to run our shelter a little differently,” says Thomas. “We can only take people into the shelter who have an identified pathway to housing. We know that’s difficult because we give access to Section 8 vouchers, but they require a year’s worth of case management to utilize them. However, there aren’t enough case managers in the county for people to use all the vouchers.”
With two more case managers being laid off at HSC due to the budget cuts, this means even more people will be bottlenecked in an already strained system.
HSC is divided up into different sections of the campus: the Paul Lee Loft houses 50 and serves as emergency housing; the Rebele Family Shelter holds 27 families and provides temporary shelter for 180 days; the Recuperative Care Center holds 12 adults and provides 24-hour care for at-risk individuals; the Page Smith Community provides transitional housing for 40 people for up to 24 months; and the Daytime Essential Services Center provides breakfast and dinner and showers along with the computer and mail rooms.
“Frankly, I think it’s the administration’s fault,” Carcello states bluntly. “Not only a mismanagement of funds, but I think there’s a total inexperience with the actual homeless condition. We’re seeing people here in the administration who don’t want to even mingle with the homeless, let alone have any understanding of what it means to be homeless.”
Like many using HSC’s services, Carcello says he wants to work, but has a hard time finding it.
“I have compression fractures. I don’t have a left hip joint. I have two reconstructions in my right leg that didn’t work out well and I have a restricted heart valve,” he says. “And they’re talking about me getting out of here on July 5.”
Once the eviction notices were served, things quickly began to fall apart.
“Michael Todd, who was a very dear friend of mine in this trailer, was very sick with a heart condition,” Carcello says. “They gave him a 60-day notice and he freaked out. He went to pieces, had a massive heart attack and died.”
Residents also blame the recent death of Dene Shaw on the trauma of the eviction. The 59-year-old woman, who had a history of substance abuse, was killed by a hit-and-run driver at Highway 1 and River Street on June 12, shortly after receiving an immediate eviction notice.
“She was kicked out, even though she was paying rent,” says resident Robert Leland-Horrocks. “I thought you couldn’t kick anyone out without a 30-days notice, and now she’s dead.”
Thomas denies the deaths are a result of the funding cuts and evictions.
“I don’t think receiving the eviction notices was necessarily a causation,” Thomas says. “There were other situations the person who had a heart attack experienced, and the situation with the tragic hit-and-run accident I also do not think was related to eviction notices.”
Despite the recent losses, some of the news coming from HSC is positive. Since the cutbacks were announced, Santa Cruz County has provided a year’s worth of funding to keep the mail room open, allowing residents continued communication and saving the employees’ jobs. The county also gave an emergency $214,000 to keep the Paul Lee Loft open for an extra six months.
On June 23, as part of a consent agenda, the Santa Cruz City Council voted to “continue discussions” with HSC and the Homeless Action Partnership to “respond to the anticipated closure of HSC programs and develop recommendations … to be considered by the City Council in August 2015.”
“We don’t have as many funding sources as a city [compared to the county],” says Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane. “But we still have a few possibilities.”
All of this follows on the heels of two conflicting reports released by the County of Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Grand Jury.
In their report entitled “Recipe for Failure: Shrinking Budgets and Increasing Needs for Emergency Homeless Shelters,” the Grand Jury reported, “The existing emergency shelters are unable to meet the needs of the local homeless population, providing temporary housing to only 18 percent, leaving 82 percent unsheltered per 2013 data.” They concluded that homelessness is on the rise due to a lack of affordable housing, vagrancy laws that penalize the homeless and a lack of funding.
Yet, on June 24, Santa Cruz County’s biennial census concluded homelessness has decreased by 44.5 percent county-wide since 2013. The census also states that the City of Santa Cruz has seen a decrease of 38.5 percent in the last two years.
Regardless of which report is more accurate, the fact remains that the loss of emergency funds at HSC will mean a more visible homeless population.
“We’re going to see more people who used to spend time at the Homeless Services Center be in other public spaces around the community and that will probably cause alarm,” says Lane. “It’s interesting because some folks who are concerned about homelessness have also felt the HSC was somehow responsible for homelessness in Santa Cruz. They’ve wished the center would cut back services, and now that it’s going to happen, it’s possible some of those folks will be unhappy with their wish coming true.”
PHOTO: Budget cuts led the Homeless Service Center to scale back its programs for those living on Santa Cruz’s streets this week. CHIP SCHEUER