Quick Take:

Homelessness is California’s biggest crisis and a problem Santa Cruz County cannot seem to get a handle on, as hard as it tries. Don Lane, former Santa Cruz mayor turned housing advocate, offers three options and explains the benefits and drawbacks of each. If you are looking to understand this tangled issue quickly, this is your chance. Next week, he’ll focus on solutions and explain how Santa Cruz — city and county — are tackling the issue.

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Some in the community hope homelessness and people on the street will simply “go away.” But most of us remain convinced we can find meaningful solutions and interventions to this ongoing Santa Cruz and California problem.

I see three possible approaches, all at play to some degree in the Santa Cruz area.

One approach is to manage or regulate those experiencing homelessness through laws and the legal system. This basically entails law enforcement intervening when encampments appear or when people sleep in places not typically meant for habitation.

The next approach is offering shelters and emergency, interim places for unhoused people to stay. Sometimes these options include living in vehicles or tents.

The third approach is to focus on getting unhoused people into long-term housing as quickly as possible.

Let’s take a deeper look at how each of these things work and/or don’t work. And then, in my follow-up piece, I’ll explain which approaches the city and county are using and my thoughts on each.

To begin the discussion of the management of people living outside through laws and the legal system, we need to understand this important federal court ruling: Martin v. Boise. You can read the details, but the key takeaway is that cities and counties are significantly limited in how they can enforce laws related to unhoused people sleeping outside or in vehicles. If a community does not have sufficient shelter to accommodate all the unhoused people in it, the city cannot cite or arrest people for sleeping outside in a public place.

Santa Cruz has about three unsheltered people for every shelter bed.

While this limits some of the law enforcement tools Santa Cruz can use, there are ordinances around “nuisance” and parking that the city can and does use to manage people sleeping in public places. Even here, though, there are important limitations.

State laws and local jail capacity realities mean that most people violating these rules are simply cited or are arrested and released right away.

The second approach — emergency shelter — is familiar to just about everyone.

This is the way our community and hundreds of other communities have addressed homelessness for many decades.

Pallet shelters on Housing Matters' campus.

The idea is simple: People need basics — including protection from the elements and a place to sleep. To address these basics in Santa Cruz, we have the National Guard Armory, the two shelters at Housing Matters (the Coral Street homeless center), the church-based shelters around the community, the sanctioned outdoor encampment on River Street and the small “safe parking” programs.

The relatively new approach, which is now the focus of much of the organized homelessness work around the country, is the housing-centered approach.

Sometimes referred to as “housing first,” this approach is based on three main ideas. The first is that using resources on interim interventions means we end up keeping a lot of folks in the “homelessness response system” indefinitely and not getting to long-term solutions.

The second idea is that getting a person on the street into housing means that their homelessness is over and that they have a relatively stable situation from which to work on other issues. The third idea is that requiring people to address their difficult issues before moving into housing makes it nigh impossible for most to ever move past interim and emergency shelter and services.

Each of the three approaches has some real benefit, though each one also presents at least one major problem.

The obvious benefit of the law enforcement approach is that it can potentially move or remove people who are creating messes or disturbances in public places. While this has little benefit for people living outside, many housed people would experience this as beneficial. Some will also see this approach as beneficially discouraging some people from living outside.

However, this approach presents many downsides.

  • It creates new hardships on people who are already experiencing plenty of hardships.
  • There is no evidence that this law enforcement approach has reduced or ended

homelessness. Mainly, it just moves it around.

  • It is very expensive for the community. Though it might be counterintuitive, this approach fully implemented is likely to cost more than the other two — even though the other two are not cheap. This is because the public costs of police, cleaning up, courts and jails are very high.

The benefit of the interim/emergency shelter approach is obvious. It keeps people healthier and safer. It also reduces the community impacts of people setting up unmanaged campsites in public places.

The difficulty with this approach is also fairly obvious. It reduces harm, but sustains homelessness.

Without a housing focus, a very large proportion of those served simply remain homeless. They either run out of time in the interim situation and return to the street or they choose to leave because of the poor living situation of a shelter. (In many situations, shelter means little privacy, limited security for belongings, crowded conditions, lack of ability to meet important special needs, inability to work night shifts.)

Most folks who’ve experienced homelessness for a longer period have had very negative experiences in shelters and refuse to enter one at this point. Beyond these issues, we once again see that this is an expensive approach because it means lots of folks will remain reliant on the system for a long time.

The housing approach has the most obvious benefit.

It gets people off the street for the long term and gets the best results in terms of keeping people safe and healthy. And it offers the greatest dignity for people who, for the most part, have not been treated with much dignity. (I suspect some readers will question whether some of the folks they see on the street should be treated with dignity. My short reply is that they will probably respond better to being treated with dignity than being treated with the scorn and rejection that surrounds many folks on the street.)

Former Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane
Former Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

But, like the other approaches, this one presents important problems. First, it doesn’t answer the question of where people should sleep tonight while they work with social workers and others to secure some kind of housing. And (sorry to state another “obvious”) we all know how difficult it is to find affordable or even unaffordable rental housing in this region.

So people end up waiting in less healthy and less safe situations for a fairly long time. And this approach ain’t cheap either — though there’s a pretty good body of research now that says that this is less costly for a community than other approaches. (Once a person is stably housed, their cost to the community goes way down or disappears.)

This is the point where you and I both wish I could tie this all up with the “answer.”

Prepare to be disappointed. I don’t have it. However, I do have some thoughts about how we might move forward that could be beneficial.

Tune in for Part 2 next week.

Don Lane has lived in Santa Cruz for 49 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. His previous piece for Lookout ran in February.

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.