Just off Highway 1, at the far end of River Street in the Harvey West neighborhood of Santa Cruz, a temporary micro-city is still humming along despite another deadline fast approaching for its residents. Behind a tall fence topped with barbed wire, tents housing some five dozen people are arranged in neat rows, personal touches like prayer flags and a water station thoughtfully arranged near the front entrance.
Outside the city-backed homeless encampment, temporary no parking signs posted when the camp first opened in February still list a June 30 expiration date. Now, with just over a week to go until the city’s next self-imposed deadline for an alternative shelter, GT has learned that the city is poised to again delay a decision on the camp amid ongoing resistance to proposed longer-term locations.
“It doesn’t look like we’ll be taking anything to City Council on the 14th,” city spokesperson Eileen Cross wrote in an email, referring to next week’s Santa Cruz City Council meeting. “No decision has been made on River Street.”
Cross adds that “the city and county are continuing to explore feasible options of locations to move the camp to,” though she did not specify individual sites or neighborhoods. Santa Cruz County Spokesperson Jason Hoppin, meanwhile, says the county is more focused on the potential for increased state funding and youth homelessness outreach.
“The River Street camp itself was always something the city did,” Hoppin says. “Their efforts to relocate people and find a new location for that—that’s going to be up to them.”
With the future of the River Street camp uncertain, some local homeless advocates are taking matters into their own hands, launching efforts to create more options for people to sleep safely in cars or store personal belongings. At the county level, nearly $2.5 million in federal funding has also flowed this summer into efforts to address homelessness among young adults and school-age children who lack stable housing.
In the process of identifying potential paths forward, Santa Cruz is grappling with an increasingly acute situation felt in cities throughout California and beyond.
“It’s a huge issue up and down the coast,” says Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, where policymakers in the state capital are also exploring city-sanctioned camps for some 600 people. “The West Coast, from San Diego to Seattle, all saw pretty significant increases in homelessness.”
PUBLIC LAND DILEMMAS
Perhaps the biggest question now is how far local governments in Santa Cruz and cities with similarly outsized homeless populations will go to use public land to alleviate homelessness while policymakers discuss longer-term fixes for affordable housing.
Four sites were previously proposed for an interim shelter facility to be open for 18-24 months until a new permanent shelter could be built, including a county facility on Emeline Avenue, the National Guard Armory near the DeLaveaga Golf Course, Pogonip Clubhouse off Golf Club Drive, and Dimeo Lane near the city landfill. Though homeless advocates and some residents have urged immediate action, many would-be neighbors have staunchly opposed the proposals, stalling a decision.
“It’s been an endless cycle,” says Brent Adams, who heads local nonprofit homeless services and advocacy group the Warming Center Program, alluding to evictions prior to the River Street camp in San Lorenzo Park and elsewhere. “We think there needs to be a more holistic and street-aware approach to shelter.”
While public agencies debate next steps, grassroots groups like Adams’ have started to offer up stop-gap measures—some with government support, some without.
The Association of Faith Communities, for instance, has appealed for public funds to expand its SafeSpaces program offering free parking spaces to the estimated 30 percent of homeless residents who sleep in their cars each night, one third of whom live in their cars with a child. The Warming Center Program, which operates with no public funding on a $65,000-a-year budget, has offered its namesake winter shelter since 2014 and in June began a free service that allows homeless residents to store their belongings while not in use.
Last Thursday evening, Adams and the Warming Center’s one paid employee stood outside a white passenger shuttle bus parked at a running city meter in the lot behind the downtown Wheel Works. A slow trickle of men and women walked up to the bus, gave their names and waited for the gray plastic bins with their belongings — bedding, clothes, shoes — to be retrieved for the night.
One man with a bald head and bright blue eyes, Larry, said he lived at a home in the Santa Cruz Mountains for 40 years and used to commute to Silicon Valley for work as an engineer. Finding a new job after a layoff proved impossible at an older age, he said, which led to spending the last few weeks sleeping in a quiet spot with good light, on the street near downtown.
Still, Larry, who declined to give his last name, said he was hopeful he’d find a new place in the mountains in a few more weeks. He described himself as “independent,” but also said living on the street was for him something like an out-of-body experience you might read about in a book. He even sympathized with neighbors in houses and apartments who remain divided over what to do next.
“They’re in a tough spot,” he said. “It’s a lot of people.”
THE MAKING OF A STALEMATE
The official numbers, tallied one day every other year by a team of volunteer surveyors, say that Santa Cruz was home to 2,249 homeless individuals last year—up from 1,964 people in 2015, but well below the 3,536 people counted by the point-in-time survey in 2013. About 68 percent of people surveyed last year lived in the county prior to becoming homeless, and 38 percent of people had been homeless for 11 months or less.
Still, advocates and public officials alike question whether statistics capture the full range of people living in various stages of homelessness. Gray areas like constant couchsurfing, long stays in motels or families living doubled or tripled up are often overlooked, along with people who may try to avoid being counted or stay in more isolated outdoor areas.
“I think we forget all the different faces of homelessness,” says Santa Cruz Vice Mayor Martine Watkins, who also works as a community organizer for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. “We have a lot of kids who are homeless in our county.”
About 17 percent of those tallied in the 2017 homeless count were children under the age of 18. During the 2016-2017 school year, the county reported 3,263 homeless school-age students, mostly living in overcrowded homes or apartments shared with other families.
Starting this school year, Santa Cruz County Schools and Pajaro Valley Schools will each receive $175,000 annually for the next three years to serve homeless students. As part of more than $2 million in federal funding for youth homelessness announced by the county this summer, schools will also benefit from $100,000 annually to be spent on a new Youth Homeless Response Team to bring children who may be on the street or in shelters back into the school system.
Though homelessness can result from a range of circumstances—job loss, medical conditions, substance abuse, evictions—the reckoning about the future of the issue comes at a time of increasing anxiety about widening economic disparities in the county. A disconnect between high costs of living and scarce high-wage work in Santa Cruz has earned the city several dubious distinctions in recent years.
One 2015 UCSC report named the city the “least affordable small metro area in the entire country.” Just two weeks ago, the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California reported that Santa Cruz County is the second-poorest county in California—Los Angeles County topped the list—with nearly 24 percent of area residents falling below a localized poverty rate of $33,953 for a family of four.
“Housing costs are really the single-largest component of what’s driving at least the California poverty measure,” says Tess Thorman, co-author of the PPIC study. “Any changes in that statewide will really have an impact on poverty.”
Though Santa Cruz built more housing than required by state regulators from 2007-2014 for residents earning $41,700 a year or more, the city did not report building any of the minimum 75 units ordered for residents earning less money. The city’s latest state-mandated housing assessment from 2015 attributes the gap to the recession-era dissolution of statewide redevelopment agencies, which previously provided permanent funding for affordable housing.
As residents with and without housing await word on what might come next, Hoppin says an estimated $8-10 million from the state that could be made available on an emergency basis by the end of this year could be a game changer. Still, even good news comes with caveats.
“That funding is one-time, and it has to be spent in a relatively short amount of time,” Hoppin says. “We have a lot of work ahead of us to figure out how we’re going to spend it.”