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Ten Big Ideas for What to Do About Santa Cruz’s Homeless Crisis

How to reduce suffering and end a decades-long problem, according to experts

A homeless man sleeps in the dirt alongside Main Street in Watsonville recently. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

[This is part two of a two-part series on homelessness — Editor]

We called up 10 local residents and asked for their pitches for fixing—or at least improving—Santa Cruz County’s problems around homelessness. Here’s what they told us. Their responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Elise Strobel

Trainee and crew leader at the Homeless Garden Project

I’ve watched people transform their lives through programs like the Homeless Garden Project and Housing Matters. One of my coworkers, when I first met her, had lost custody of her kids and didn’t have a car. She walked everywhere. I was able to watch her get her own place and get custody of her own kids. And now, she has her own apartment, her own car. A lot of it is about helping individuals find their place in their community. I don’t think there’s a whole blanket solution. I love the Homeless Garden Project. It’s so magical and has given me a place to relearn job skills.

Andy Mills

Santa Cruz Police chief

The solutions for many of these problems are really at the federal, state and county level. For instance, there needs to be more mental health beds. Drug addiction—there needs to be beds for people who are ready to recover. And you need to offer it in the moment when people want it. That does not exist. We’re trying to do what we can, as a city, to fix a sociological problem. Whatever the City Council asks, we will absolutely do to the best of our ability. I want to make sure we adjust expectations about what this response looks like. We’re going to try to fix this problem through ordinance and issuing citations. But the solution must be much broader than that. Maybe we can lessen the impacts of some of these super camps on the community. But doing enforcement is not going to change homelessness. However, I do believe that people need to be held accountable for their actions and their behaviors.

Robert Ratner

Santa Cruz County Housing for Health director 

The ultimate place where we need to see change is where we invest in affordable housing at the federal and state level—more affordable housing with the right kinds of supports for people to stay in their homes. And there are some great examples of that work. It’s trying to figure out how to bring it up to scale and advocate for more resources to be more successful. Local governments—both city and county—have some flexibility in terms of how they use their revenue. So there’s some discretion. The city may be saying, ‘We need more support from the county.’ I come from the framework of ‘We really have to work together and think creatively about how we utilize our resources. I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think the city and county need to work together to address some of the issues.

And we need to close the housing affordability gap—increasing incomes or reducing housing costs. That’s the number-one thing. If we can’t move the needle on that, we’re not going to make much progress. Number two is improving our health care services to help people keep their homes; sometimes health challenges get in the way of us keeping our housing. We also need to take care of those who are exiting homelessness with wraparound services. Lastly, healthy connections are really critical. Homelessness can be extremely isolating, and people can lose a sense of hope and meaning in their lives. The more we can do to reduce the stigma and bring people back into the community, the more we’ll make great progress. We need to do some community education and unpack why people end up on the streets.

Steve Pleich 

Shelter coordinator for the Association of Faith Communities, homeless representative on the Santa Cruz Police Chief’s Advisory Committee

I’ve always been an advocate for more shelter. The only way to get people off the street is to provide more opportunity for them to be consistently and supportively sheltered, so they can move into some transitional and supportive housing at some point. But generally speaking as an emergent measure, we need to have more of the transitional managed camps. That’s something that we really could put some focus on and commit to. For Santa Cruz, it’s more been about location than it has about commitment to do those sorts of things. I’ve canvassed a lot of the neighborhoods in the past to see where we might be able to put some safe sleeping spaces or self-managed camps, and the neighborhoods have been consistently resistant. Now with more focus from the City Council and the county seemingly to identify locations, that’s the direction we need to go in the short term. Eventually, you’ll need to have a real commitment from the county—because they’re the real funding source—for permanent supportive housing. Really, that’s the only way that unsheltered, extremely low-income people can ever hope to get any kind of housing. Affordable housing is out of the reach of just about every unsheltered person I know. Some program that really generates transitional and permanent supportive housing is the only option—with navigational help in getting back into employment and services that eventually lead to permanent housing. But I’m much more a shelter person than I am a housing person because I think that’s the more immediate need.

Cecelia Espinola

Housing Matters Board president, retired Santa Cruz County Human Services director

The solution to homelessness is pretty easy. It’s housing! It’s just that the path that the journey or path to get there in this community is pretty complex. It’s not unique to Santa Cruz. This whole state of California has an affordable housing crisis. And I think it’s particularly acute for those who are very, very low-income. We have a desperate need for that kind of housing, particularly here in Santa Cruz. Housing is one of the most significant public health issues facing our community and our state. Prior to my retirement, we had just started implementing some programs to address the issue. We started working with a number of nonprofits in the community, including Homeless Services Center, which is now Housing Matters. The housing-first strategy isn’t just about housing. It’s housing-and—but first, let’s get people off the streets.

We need more than temporary solutions. You can’t just build shelters. We do need more shelters, but ones that also provide a path to housing. A shelter is not permanent housing. I do think right now we do need more safe places to sleep—whatever form that might take. We also need to work collaboratively in the community and not just have these disparate approaches. It’s good that the county is taking a stronger active role in convening and being very intentional and purposeful in their partnerships with the community. We can do this.

Ellen Muraska

Volunteer for Felton Presbyterian’s Ministry to the Poor

We’re a Christian body, and the Christian Bible says to serve. I was really surprised how many people who are homeless are in my age group—I’m in my sixties—and how many of them grew up in the San Lorenzo Valley or have lived here for 10, 15 years. They aren’t young people looking for an adventure. They’re people who’ve been jobbed out, couldn’t work, couldn’t live. It’s really sad. But people do participate in services that are available. People join Downtown Streets Team, which provides a network for people who are homeless to get their paperwork done, to get their tickets cleared, and they work; they do cleanups. Sometimes those same people stop by on Free Lunch Tuesday. Organizations like that help on an individual basis. The more services available the better.

Ashley Bridges

Pajaro Valley Loaves and Fishes executive director 

We can look at the problem in different ways—with two being mental illness and substance abuse. Those issues often go hand in hand with homelessness. The majority of people I see coming to Loaves and Fishes are living with mental illness. Addressing those two issues, as well as having a place for people to live—small homes, even encampments—will make a huge difference in the long run. If people have their needs met with mental health and substance abuse, it will be a lot easier for them to reintegrate into society. The cost of living here is another issue. When people are exiting homelessness, they have difficulty finding jobs and housing. We need housing options that are safe and that allow them to get that foundation. Also, people should treat those who are unsheltered with dignity and respect.

Michael Miller

Downtown Streets Team member

I’ve been living at San Lorenzo Park for three months. There are good days, and there are bad days. Sometimes it gets rowdy; there are disputes. But it can be peaceful. The big problem is the camp along Highway 1 at River. Basically, Santa Cruz County leaders need to listen; they need to hear our voices, our concerns. The homeless problem in this area is huge. And they could open up some more shelters, like the Civic Auditorium or the Kaiser Permanente Arena. That would really help. There’s a lot of wasted money that could go to help us.

Erik Lau

Families In Transition fund development manager

We’re all witness to the increased influence of Silicon Valley home purchases and the ever-rising housing costs. And we’re coming precariously close to letting economics destroy the quality of life here. It’s really supply and demand. There’s very little supply of housing that’s affordable to the average family. And as more working families are driven out of the area, more and more residents will lose small businesses and jobs. That leads to unemployment, housing insecurity and, ultimately, homelessness. We thrive when everyone is an interdependent member of the community. The pandemic has put a spotlight on some of the areas where we need to concentrate our efforts. The likeliness of ending homelessness permanently is a stretch. There have been a lot of organizations that have tried to achieve that with different campaigns. What we can strive [for] in the near future is the ‘functional zero,’ which would be figuring out a way to prevent homelessness for future families of Santa Cruz County or breaking the cycle of homelessness. If you experience homelessness as a child, you’re more likely to experience it again later.

We need to continue offering services and supports that lead to housing security for vulnerable residents. We know we need to expand relationships with landlords because of the life-changing chance they can give a family by offering affordable and decent housing. We need to continue to increase resources proportional to the increasing numbers of families experiencing homelessness. We need to do a better job educating the community on the families experiencing instability and expand the supply of housing that’s affordable to low-income renters. Also, we need to explore alternative options, like tiny homes, streamlining permitting to building and building capacity to increase the availability of those affordable units.

Paul Cocking

Owner of Gabriella Cafe

The only option to really solve the problem rests with the state. I just can’t imagine our locally elected officials having the political will to set up a managed campground outside of town at the edge of neighborhoods—and then not allow people to camp in residential and commercial areas. The homeless advocates would say you can’t put these people so far from services, but you could certainly set up shuttles. And it’s inhumane to let the situation continue. The encampment along the highway is a horror story. San Lorenzo Park is right next to a residential area with a lot of seniors, and a lot of them are frightened. It does seem like we’re making a lot of progress on public housing, which is nice to see, but we need a lot more of it.

Tarmo Hannula contributed to this story.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Alberto Jones

    April 10, 2021 at 10:11 am

    Andy Mills’ weak response confirms my suspicion the police have a limp wrist when it comes to the homeless. I’ve seen drug dealers openly dealing drugs in broad daylight with no fear of the police. I’ve seen drug addicts injecting drugs in front of children under 10. Police: you need to instill fear in the homeless. Stop being so soft and nice!

  2. Chris Kenney

    April 9, 2021 at 11:37 pm

    When did the current epidemic of mentally-ill homelessness begin? As part of his Credo that Government was the Problem not the Solution, then Governor, now Conservative Saint Ronald Reagan closed most California’s mental hospitals, to be replaced by community treatment centers that largely were never built. His Voodoo Economics plan to give money to the rich so they would create jobs which would trickle money down on the masses WAS accomplished, although only the making the rich richer part, and has become the backbone of enforced Republican policy, leading to our present Gilded (“Golden?”) Age. Plutocracy has only produced things like Billionaires gaining $1.3 Trillion (T= 1,000 Billions) in the past year U.S , while desperate have-nots are whipped into a fascist frenzy by an egomaniacal traitor.
    BTW, I know I’m inviting the Trollstorm, but I think articles like this about extreme shortages of affordable housing, wide-spread poverty, and massive homelessness (30,000 in LA alone), should be published alongside the articles insisting on Open Borders. Beyond those seeking to fill US Agriculture labor shortages, I’m sure there are many millions of people in Latin America, the Middle East, India, Africa, and around the world who think they would be better off living in America. Perhaps the No Borders people think we should be providing free transportation from wherever these millions are now, as well as payments from tax monies when they arrive. Americans who point out that massive immigration would harm the lives of their children, neighbors, and themselves are attacked as “selfish” and “entitled”. Even many Latinos oppose Open Borders “They’re just waving money at those poor people!” Surely everyone “just wants a better life”, but US is not obligated or able to provide it for everyone who manages to enter the country; the most common “justification” quoted is not from US law or the Constitution, but only an anachronistic poem on a statue in NY Harbor.

  3. Rem

    April 2, 2021 at 9:36 pm

    Going to be the bad guy in the room and point out that most of the unsheltered don’t want to be sheltered because they don’t want to follow the rules on drugs or other issues.

    Focus on people who are on the cusp of homelessness with affordable housing coupons, work to rent programs. People who aren’t drug addicts and mentally ill get first priority to care so they can move back into normal society before they are leashed to their vices.

    The mentally ill, criminals, junkies need either a bus ticket to Mississippi or to be locked away. Remove the limits on LPS and be done with people that have no intention of helping society or them selves

  4. PG

    April 1, 2021 at 8:45 am

    I’ve seen five groups: mentally ill, substance abuse disorders (many times mentally ill self medicating), economically displaced, transients and criminals (who prey on the others). First we need to get the criminals off the streets. No more catch and release as it makes this place unsafe. Secondly we need to shelter the others with wrap around services per Carol’s recommendations in the previous post.

  5. Ben

    April 1, 2021 at 12:24 am

    Carol, I agree, addressing mental illness is critical. I also think the cluster communities are a good idea.
    How to pay for it? I think owners doing a renovation or build over a certain amount should have to design and build a tiny home using their contractors. It doesn’t have to cost a certain amount, just meet certain codes (just like a normal house)
    The workers on a job might actually enjoy finding a use for the scrap materials, and maybe getting a bonus for meeting code under budget. Less cost to haul it so the dump, less landfill waste. More stable housing means the neighborhood/town will look better overall, which benefits home values. Architect on a job knows at the start “alright I’m gonna have to draw up this extra space, since the project is above $x.” Hey just a daydream.

  6. Carol Polhamus

    March 31, 2021 at 11:43 am

    Ten big ideas, but only one mentioning the elephant(s) in the room. Anyone who has worked with the homeless knows that unmanaged chronic mental illness and untreated substance abuse disorders play a significant role in chronic homelessness. Data varies by source, but statistics from the county, the United Way and others peg it at somewhere around 30-40%. You can have all the affordable housing in the world (and I definitely I wish we did), but those with unmanaged chronic mental illness are still not going to be able to sustain independent living without significant support and treatment. Ditto with chronic substance abuse disorders. Pretending that this is “just” an affordable housing problem denies the bigger root cause for many suffering homelessness. California needs to recreate supportive housing for the chronically mentally ill with significant services, including lifetime support for those are never able to live independently, and needs to provide long term residential inpatient substance abuse treatment for those with long time substance abuse disorders. Until we realize that all homeless people are not homeless for the same reasons, and that one size definitely does not fit all, we are doomed to repeat this cycle of failure no matter how much “affordable” housing we create. My suggestion? The county should create multiple, small supportive shelter situations in various parts of the county using Pallet structures or other tiny home structures (not tents), with robust services including mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, case management, job training (as appropriate), and progress from these shelters to supportive “halfway” situations with extended social service support, and from there, if possible, to independent living. If we could at least address the approximately 30% of the homeless who are chronically mentally ill we would make a huge impact in their quality of life, as well as the community’s. Allowing chronically mentally ill, psychotic, schizophrenic people live outside without treatment or services is unconscionable.

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