Mayor Don Lane talks about his letter on homelessness
With the holidays on the way and wintry weather already arriving, many in Santa Cruz are prepping for holiday parties and vacation. Those living on the streets are getting ready for a colder, harsher reality, with overnight lows currently hovering around 40 degrees—and it’s only November.
It was in this context that Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane posted an open letter to the City Council on the issue of homelessness on Facebook late last month. He began by outlining the positives, including the work of the group 180/2020, which has housed more than 360 people to date, doubling its original goal. He invoked the 2015 census, which shows a 44 percent decrease in homelessness in Santa Cruz since 2013. He applauded the county for stepping up its efforts with new funding and staff commitments. Then Lane dug into the bad news.
Last July, Homeless Services Center (HSC) witnessed a funding setback of $650,000 in denied grants. That has led to the indefinite cutting of daytime services, leaving hundreds without access to free meals, showers and a safe place to spend the day. Lane worries that this has led to increased visibility of homeless people on city streets—one of the things critics of the shelter and the homeless have at times harped on.
Perhaps more than anything, Lane has been troubled by the coming winter. “The timeliness of some of these issues prompted the letter,” Lane tells GT, “particularly the El Niño predicted, and the vulnerabilities that are looming for people on the street.”
Many on Facebook expressed support for the letter, which totaled about nine pages and took Lane some 14 drafts, but others derided it. One such commenter, known online only as Clarkie Clark, was born and raised in Santa Cruz, and tells GT in an email that progress is often too slow on these issues.
“I was [an] admin for TBSC [Take Back Santa Cruz] when they first started, had my own neighborhood Westside group of about 100 people, kept involved with [the] city, police, and it got to the point where it was obvious none of the people in positions to change things were going to do it,” writes Clark, who’s since moved to Oregon.
This could be something of a pivotal time for homeless issues. Lane, a three-time mayor and longtime supporter of the homeless, is getting temporarily termed out next year, and he has said he doesn’t plan to run for city council again in the future. Additionally, HSC director Jannan Thomas recently resigned after only one year.
Phil Kramer, who led the 180/2020 housing program for three years, has stepped in as interim director. HSC board president Claudia Brown calls him “the natural choice.”
In his letter, Lane also brought up the city’s sleeping ban and pointed out that the federal government has signaled it may stop providing housing dollars to communities with such laws. Last August, the Department of Justice filed a brief in in Boise, Idaho. In it, the DOJ argued that it is unconstitutional to penalize people for sleeping as it violates the Eighth Amendment.
“This means communities will need to show what they’re doing around the issue of criminalizing sleeping,” says Kramer.
The letter, Kramer adds, offers the community a chance to respond. “We know that roughly 35 die unsheltered and homeless in Santa Cruz, every year. There’s a lot we can do to prevent that,” he says.
One of Lane’s suggestions is a network of warming centers set up around the county. He proposes that the city provide 10 spots, free of charge, where homeless individuals could sleep and stay warm on different nights, plus an additional 20 provided by volunteer organizations—for a total of 30 nights of warmth. Lane says volunteers approached him with the idea.
Since Lane published his letter, Santa Cruz County—along with the cities of Santa Cruz, Capitola and Scotts Valley—has voted to give HSC emergency funds to keep the winter shelter program open and running. The program provides dinner, a safe place to sleep, and breakfast for those in need from Nov. 16 through March 15. (Brown says it should be open 30 days longer than that.)
When it comes to the sleeping ban, Lane calls for some out-of-the-box thinking. He proposes issuing permits for individuals to sleep on the street as long as they’ve made the effort to find housing, but were denied. The Mayor also suggests taking a hard look at the sleeping ban itself. “It doesn’t seem to make sense to penalize people for sleeping,” he says.
He says many of the complaints he hears from community members are not necessarily about individuals camping or sleeping in the open, but about the trash that is often left behind. “We can have an ordinance to address those issues, but maybe the person falling asleep on a park bench isn’t a problem we should engage law enforcement with,” Lane says.
Kramer acknowledges there is community tension when it comes to homelessness, but adds the community has a responsibility to solve the problems together. Brown says the root of the problem, at least, isn’t hard to find. After years of federal studies, she says it’s clear that the solution to homelessness is housing.
“I kind of feel like saying ‘duh’ every time at the end of that sentence, because it seems so obvious,” she says.
Kramer agrees. “It’s not rocket science,” he says. “But it is hard work.”
SEAT AND GREET The Homeless Services Center shuttered its daytime services this past May, including meals, showers, short-term housing, and mail room access, due to lack of funding.