State of Homelessness | Santa Cruz continues to grapple with homelessness challenges

By | | Santa Cruz Sentinel

PUBLISHED: June 27, 2021 at 3:00 a.m. | UPDATED: June 27, 2021 at 6:08 a.m

SANTA CRUZ — Santa Cruz County, with its miles of coastal access, temperate climate and acres of wooded areas, has long proven attractive – and barely affordable – to those both with access to housing and without.

Laws regulating when and where people can sleep outdoors date back more than four decades, particularly in Santa Cruz County’s most populous city and namesake. After lengthy revision, study, years of debate and a temporary nullification, Santa Cruz city leaders reinstated its no-camping ordinance this month, pending the creation of new homeless possession storage and safe overnight sleeping programs, in an effort to prevent large entrenched encampments. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has criticized iterations of the city ordinance, condemning the “increased regulations targeting unhoused individuals,” while Disability Rights California predicted the law would strengthen “the relationship between poverty and incarceration.”

Now-Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers in October pleaded with U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, California State Assemblyman Mark Stone and then soon-to-be-elected state Sen. John Laird to assist the city with its “dire” homelessness situation. She cited the city’s disproportionate share of people living without housing, estimated in a January 2019 homeless census to be at nearly 55%, compared to the 23% of the county’s total population living within city limits.

“It’s not sustainable for a city of 62,000 people to do this level of care of homeless individuals in Santa Cruz County,” Meyers said at the time. “It’s not sustainable for us.”

Santa Cruz County as a whole has one of the highest per-capita rates of homelessness in the state, with 79.3 homeless individuals per 10,000 residents, according to federally mandated homeless census reporting. Per the January 2019 Homeless Point-in-Time Count, there were 2,167 people experiencing homelessness in a county with 273,213 residents at the time. Meanwhile, the county’s biennial homeless counts from 2009 to 2019 averaged 2,677 people.

Strategy sessions

Nearly a year ago, the independent Santa Cruz County Grand Jury put together an 84-page report,  “Homelessness: Big Problem, Little Progress: It’s Time To Think Outside The Box,” focusing on several areas the group believed were weak in local homelessness response.

“A lack of consistent funding makes it extremely challenging for organizations to plan more than a year in advance, nor does it allow for agencies to fund projects that may require many years to implement,” the July 2020 report reads. “As a result, a myriad of temporary fixes tend to receive emergency funding, inhibiting the effective implementation of long-term planning solutions leading to reactive and tactical rather than strategic planning.”

This year, the latest in a long series of strategic plans aiming to significantly reduce or even end homelessness across the county, two entities — one private, one public — with the most resources to invest in addressing countywide homelessness have released their own ambitious multiyear strategies to guide such efforts.

Leaders for both Santa Cruz County’s Housing for Health Division and Housing Matters, in presenting their respective plans, stressed that their efforts would not “solve” homelessness.

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