More than 30 Santa Cruz County community members came to the 418 Project on Thursday to hear local city and law enforcement officials discuss positives and negatives surrounding the city and county’s housing crisis. The event also featured a screening of the Andrew Purchin documentary “What’s Home? Creative Listening Across Differences,” which explores the county’s housing crisis through collaborative art projects created among artists, writers, musicians and both housed and unhoused people, along with a song by local rap artist Alwa Gordon.
Community organizers and local city and law enforcement officials gathered Thursday night to discuss the struggles of tackling the region’s homelessness challenges in the face of Santa Cruz County’s escalating housing crisis.
City of Santa Cruz Homelessness Response Manager Larry Imwalle told a group of about 30 people at The 418 Project on River Street that far too often, frontline homelessness response workers are themselves struggling financially. Some are even “on the margins of homelessness.”
“They’re often working for wages that are really putting them at the margins of this community, given the affordability,” Imwalle told the event, co-hosted by documentary filmmaker Andrew Purchin and the Santa Cruz Free Guide, the county’s newest homeless service provider.
He added that across the state, resources are shrinking for the kinds of organizations working in human services and dedicated to combating homelessness. “You’re dealing with people experiencing trauma, which can create trauma in the people doing this work,” he said. “As we need to care for this workforce, we also need to invest in this workforce.”
Since 1980, Santa Cruz County has boosted its population by 80,000 people but built only 26,000 housing units, according to a new housing dashboard from the county. Earlier this year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition named Santa Cruz County the most expensive housing market for renters in the country when comparing local wages to housing costs.
While this year’s point-in-time counts of unhoused people, which took place in February, estimated that homelessness fell around 22% from last year, more than 1,800 people remain unhoused countywide.
Santa Cruz Police Chief Bernie Escalante and Housing Santa Cruz County Executive Director Elaine Johnson also took part in Thursday night’s panel.
Escalante said that more funding for mental health and substance abuse services is vital to tackling homelessness, since police often aren’t fully capable of providing the necessary services to someone experiencing a mental health crisis or drug-related issue.
“As law enforcement, our only real tool is to take them to jail, and we know that’s not the answer,” he said. “I think we have a significant substance abuse and mental health issue, and just do not have the bandwidth to actually provide the programs that a lot of people truly need.”
Escalante said police have been working with social workers who respond to mental health crises both with law enforcement officers and on their own, which Escalante said was a “more appropriate” response than dispatching just police to such calls. Those mental health workers are on duty seven days a week for 10 hours a day.
“It’s an amazing program and I wish we had more of them,” he said. “They’re with us from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., but that doesn’t mean we don’t get mental health crisis calls at 10 p.m.,” he said. “I think it’s been great to remove us from responding to these calls.”
RV Safe Parking Program and severe weather shelter worker Lauren Lemon, who was among the panelists, agreed that funding and personnel need to increase. Lemon, who was unhoused herself from 2018 to 2020, recalled how challenging it can be to navigate the path to securing housing.
“I think there need to be advocates that help people decipher all the programs, forms and other things that can be really overwhelming to an unhoused person,” she said. “Appreciating the workers that are there and making space for new ones to continue the work is really important.”
Panelist and musician Alexandra Henry, who uses the stage name Alexandra The Author, stressed the importance of seeking help from the community. When she lost her Section 8 housing, she reached out to fellow musician Alwa Gordon, documentary filmmaker Andrew Purchin and other community members, who helped her raise enough money to pay her rent while she sorted out her housing.
Thursday’s event also included a screening of a documentary directed by Purchin titled “What’s Home? Creative Listening Across Differences,” which explores the county’s housing crisis through collaborative art projects created among artists, writers, musicians and both housed and unhoused people.
Part of that included an original song named “Don’t Give Up On Me” written by Gordon, a local rap artist, and performed by Gordon and Henry.
“The core of the song comes from a place of purely asking for help without shame, which is very hard to do,” said Gordon, who spent a number of years unhoused as a child growing up in Santa Cruz. “Sometimes you’re asking others and sometimes you get it from yourself, but it’s coming from a place of needing and wanting help without feeling ashamed of it.”
Henry encouraged those struggling to embrace the mantra of her and Gordon’s song — don’t give up.
“I can see that I’m still here, and that’s proof that whatever has happened, you overcame it,” she said. “You still being here and being you is your hope.”
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