Quick Take:

In the second of two pieces on homelessness, housing activist and former Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane breaks down the differences in the way the City of Santa Cruz thinks about housing people and how the county does. “The city puts much more emphasis on interim shelter,” he writes, “... and spends several million dollars per year here. I believe the county ought to match the city’s commitment.”

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A few days ago, I presented the three main approaches to the challenges of homelessness in our community: the law enforcement approach, the emergency shelter approach, and the housing-first approach. Now, it’s time to share some ideas for moving forward more constructively — and to break down which approaches the county and City of Santa Cruz employ and the friction that sometimes ensues.

But before I delve into that, let me point out something that my friends with deep knowledge of homelessness issues will immediately (and correctly) note: I omitted a fourth approach — homelessness prevention. This consists of interventions like emergency rent assistance to prevent eviction that “catch” people who are on the verge of losing housing. It also includes making sure folks leaving institutional settings, including jail and prisons, have housing to transition back into independent living.

If you ever wonder why we seem to be making such slow progress on reducing homelessness, it’s mostly because we aren’t doing enough to prevent new people from becoming homeless.

There is very solid data showing that many hundreds of previously unhoused people in Santa Cruz County were housed in the past year.

And yet, a similar number lost their housing in the same time period. Think about how quickly we could make a huge dent in homelessness if we kept up our current housing efforts while dramatically reducing the number losing housing.

We are spending a moderate amount of money and energy on the original three approaches. We do this because we don’t have community consensus on the best single approach. Unfortunately, we are spreading our money too thin to have sufficient long-term impact — so we just keep spending to maintain something like the status quo. (This doesn’t mean nothing changes, but we do mostly go around in circles. Some details change, but the overall reality doesn’t.)

The only way to move toward change is to create more affordable rental housing, including units that take rent subsidy vouchers. Without them, we will have a hard time making progress. And we have to have more safeguards to keep people from losing their housing.

Think of the problem as a backwards version of the musical chairs party game, with more people added than “chairs” for them to live in.

Here’s how that translates: In the past 40 years, we have added 26,000 new housing units and 80,000 people. We haven’t added enough “chairs” for all the people now at our party. The people left out — the food-service workers, health care workers, teachers, maintenance workers and older residents who have lived here for decades — are needed to keep our community function and be balanced.

We need more housing to meet the needs of people who are already here, which is the work of local government. The county’s Housing for Health Division is the lead agency coordinating local responses to homelessness, and it has embraced the long-term housing-centered approach.

The City of Santa Cruz puts more emphasis on quick responses to alleviate immediate need. It focuses on providing short-term shelter. The city believes the county’s approach is out of balance in terms of our community’s needs because our area has a great shortage of shelter and interim housing as well as a shortage of affordable housing.

This difference in priorities makes sense. The county government has a primary responsibility for dealing with health and human services. The city government has a primary responsibility for maintaining public spaces, addressing waste issues and enforcing local and state laws.

Thomas, 39, has been surviving on a mostly outdoor existence since age 15.
Credit: Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz

When there is a large amount of street homelessness, the county focuses on finding long-term solutions for those in need of permanent housing, which can take time. The city is understandably frustrated. It wants more immediate help providing emergency and short-term shelter so fewer people sleep outside, set up unmanaged encampments and potentially engage in nuisance crime.

My own view goes something like this: The county should keep doing what it’s doing with the funds it has dedicated to housing people experiencing homelessness. (These are the permanent housing solutions that the county favors.)

And the county should use other discretionary general-fund money to provide a more robust emergency response to homelessness — including interim shelter and legal places to sleep. The city puts much more emphasis on interim shelter with the funding it’s spending on homelessness, and spends several million dollars per year here. I believe the county ought to match the city’s commitment on this.

This way, the county can maintain its thoughtful, long-term approach — and the county areas and city areas that are seeing high levels of unsheltered homelessness can operate to address the immediate, urgent need for immediate safe places. I believe this will lead to a reduction in unmanaged street homelessness and more safe, legal places for unsheltered people to stay.

One other piece connected to this: There are some excellent models locally of interim shelters that have a high level of social worker support and a central focus on moving people into housing.

I think it’s a good compromise between the housing and the shelter approaches. We need to do more of this.

Some county officials might be sympathetic to this concept, because the county shares with local cities the need to manage public spaces, waste and nuisance crime in the non-city parts of the county.

Don Lane, chair for Housing Santa Cruz County

I recognize that writing this will not change anything.

It will take a serious back-and-forth discussion between the city and county. Local elected officials will have to make difficult decisions and compromises. Finger-pointing will have to take a back seat to flexibility and showing the community additional visible results.

Simplistic, quick interventions will not do the job. Long-term strategies that don’t satisfy the public’s expectation of tangible progress won’t fly either.

No matter how frustrated or impatient we all are about the shortage of progress on homelessness, we need to pay attention to how big this challenge is and how our overall housing system and our larger economic system make it difficult to overcome.

Don Lane has lived in Santa Cruz for more than 50 years, first as a UCSC student, then as the founder/owner of the Saturn Cafe, and then as a city councilmember and mayor. He currently serves in a volunteer capacity as chair of the governing board of Housing Santa Cruz County and vice chair of the board of Housing Matters. He also goes camping with his wife, teaches part time at UCSC, writes a blog about housing and homelessness issues, plays basketball with the Santa Cruz Geezers, and makes ice cream at home. Both his daughters grew up in Santa Cruz but have now moved away.

Don Lane is a former mayor of Santa Cruz. He serves on the governing boards of Housing Santa Cruz County and Housing Matters and has been a homeowner for 40 years.