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As Santa Cruz County’s three-year strategic Framework to Reduce Homelessness nears its conclusion, I’d like to reflect how far our community has come in addressing homelessness, which is one of the most important issues facing us.

The cities and county share responsibility for providing housing and services to those suffering from homelessness. While cities are primarily responsible for providing housing within their jurisdictions, the county is responsible for providing social services, health and mental health services to vulnerable populations everywhere. The county also provides city-level services to the half of the county residing in the unincorporated area.

This makes us unusual among California counties. By providing municipal services to more than 136,000 residents we are, in effect, the largest “city” in our jurisdiction, while keeping our social, health and human service commitments to all.

Since we established the countywide Housing for Health division in 2020, the budget has increased more than threefold to $23 million. The talented team has brought in tens of millions in state and federal dollars to address homelessness, while the county’s contribution of local taxpayer dollars to programs to resolve homelessness has also grown by millions.

We are seeing results. Last fiscal year, 911 people found permanent housing through the assistance of county-supported programs and services.

We are also seeing emerging challenges, especially in South County, where the recent point-in-time count showed a significant increase in individuals and families experiencing homelessness in and near Watsonville.

We are working to build a system that better serves these people and all of our unhoused population. We have secured more than $65 million in Project Homekey, No Place Like Home, Encampment Resolution and Behavioral Health Bridge Housing grants that, once completed, will add 152 permanent supportive housing units throughout the county, along with 68 temporary beds. All of these projects are underway, with most in construction.

This will make a significant difference in our community.

The county is also focused on preventing homelessness. We provide $1.9 million annually in direct rent support, which is available to qualified tenants through the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County. Near the end of the pandemic, we also allocated $500,000 to provide legal and other eviction-prevention services to those affected by the end of the pandemic-era eviction moratorium.

Through our CORE (Collective of Results and Evidence-based) Investments program, we allocate $314,000 annually for the South County Housing Collaborative to provide prevention and intervention services to families at risk of losing their housing, as well as another $112,000 annually for eviction prevention and case management services for families and those with disabilities in North and Mid-County.

We are also in the process of establishing a contract with Tenant Sanctuary, a local tenants’ rights advocacy group, to further our homelessness prevention efforts. Another $72,000 goes to Senior Legal Services to help prevent homelessness among seniors, and we’ve added staff to work closely with Adult Protective Services in cases where vulnerable seniors are at risk of losing housing. And we invest another $25,000 each year to reconnect homeless people with vital records, such as a state identification card, an important step to getting them off the street.

While the county recognizes the need for short-term shelter services, it can be an expensive stopgap that drains funding for long-term solutions. On a per-capita basis, it costs less to provide permanent supportive housing services than it does a short-term shelter bed. During the pandemic, we used federal funding to provide temporary shelter for more than 2,000 people — the biggest and longest sheltering operation in county history. Yet, at the same time, the Benchlands encampment in Santa Cruz grew, as did encampments along the Pajaro River near Watsonville.

Short-term shelter is temporary; housing can lead to permanent progress.

The data tells us to focus our scarce dollars on housing, which is how we were able to move 911 people from homelessness to homes, resulting in the largest drop in the number of unhoused people on our streets since we began counting. This is a huge achievement — not just for our community, but for those 911 residents who now have a pathway to health and a better future.

We are also focused on building a robust network of housing and services resources that tracks outcomes and assists and moves people from the streets and shelters into homes. We are working to use data to improve our system to find the most cost-effective ways to help people secure and keep permanent homes. We partner and contract with the Central California Alliance for Health to better connect people with health care services.

The county is establishing three navigation centers (low-barrier shelters with intensive supportive services) to intake, assess and help those living on the streets. One will be located at the Coral Street campus in Santa Cruz, another will be located in Watsonville as part of a campus of modular units being developed in partnership with the City of Watsonville and Monterey County. A third will be located in Mid-County at a 34-bed facility for those with severe behavioral health issues, including those enrolled in the state’s upcoming CARE Court program. Housing-focused services linked with navigation centers help ensure those who utilize shelter services don’t end up back on the streets.

So far, we’ve secured $22 million in Project Homekey funding from the state for three permanent supportive housing developments — Veterans Village, Park Haven Plaza and Casa Azul — successes that drew a June 2022 visit from Lourdes Castro Ramírez, then-secretary of the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, to learn more about our programs.

Santa Cruz County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios.
Santa Cruz County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios. Credit: Via Carlos Palacios

We’ve also steered “No Place Like Home” funds into four major projects — Harvey West Studios, Jessie Street, Bienestar Plaza and Tabasa Gardens. And we have pending applications for an additional $42 million in Project Homekey awards, including converting the Rodeway Inn in Watsonville into 95 units of supportive housing, and Freedom House, a new transitional housing development in the unincorporated area of Watsonville focused on youth and young adults.

As our strategic framework to address homelessness comes to the end of its three-year period, we are working to update it in partnership with all local jurisdictions to meet the requirements of the California Homeless Housing, Assistance and Prevention Program to maintain our eligibility for state funding. As we have shown, continued access to state and federal funds is critical for building the local infrastructure — including permanent supportive housing — that reduces homelessness and its negative personal and community impacts. We look forward to achieving the same unanimous support among local jurisdictions for the updated plan that we did for the current one.

We remain committed to measuring our results, and planning for the next point-in-time count is already underway. The county is supported by volunteers and provides an opportunity to develop important data through a direct survey of our local population of people experiencing homelessness.

If you would like to learn more or get involved, please visit our website to view our plan, learn more about our programs and partners and subscribe to our newsletter to stay up-to-date on developments.

We have much good news to share, and we expect we will have more in the upcoming weeks, months and years. Successes like these aren’t possible without everyone working together. The county — and I personally — look forward to continuing to facilitate collective and shared efforts to prevent and end homelessness throughout the county.

Carlos Palacios is the county administrative officer for Santa Cruz County.