Quick Take:

County leaders want to prioritize services for homeless families with children, saying the idea of finding housing or shelter for all 120 such families is attainable.

In the fight against homelessness, Santa Cruz County is setting an ambitious goal of wanting to find shelter or housing for all its homeless families with children by year’s end — a move some hope will spark momentum in the county’s battle to protect some of its most vulnerable residents.

County supervisors recently unanimously adopted a policy goal that aims to create “a collaborative, countywide approach to ensure no family with children under 18 years old remains unsheltered for more than 90 days by December 2021.”

More than 120 families with children — close to 420 individuals total — were considered homeless across the county the last time officials conducted a count two years ago. County leaders now want to prioritize those families in getting them help — from identifying families in need to securing housing vouchers and connecting them with resources.

“We’ve been working for a while to put the pieces in place so that the system could provide for these families,” said Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, who along with Supervisor Bruce McPherson is behind the initiative.

The supervisors are asking various county agencies to work with community partners — including Housing Matters, which recently won a five-year $2.5 million grant specifically for solving family homelessness — to develop programs to make sure those families don’t go without shelter. County staff is expected to come back to the board by May 25 with a progress report, including any additional resources needed to reach the goal.

To Coonerty, the focus on homeless families is a priority for a variety of reasons. For one, the stress associated with prolonged homelessness among children can have significant longterm impacts, including on their social, emotional and educational development.

“I believe it to be a moral imperative to not have kids unsheltered,” Coonerty said. “And also when you look at all the data and the trauma that is experienced by kids who experience homelessness, there’s really lifelong impacts to them and their families.”

According to the most recent Point in Time Count from 2019, Santa Cruz County had about 122 unsheltered families with children, with a total of 419 members. The overall homeless population in the county totaled 2,167 individuals that year, a slight drop from the 2017 census. The count is conducted every two years during the last 10 days in January.

The challenge of homelessness can feel overwhelming, Coonerty said, but by breaking it down into smaller populations it can become more manageable and turn into an opportunity to show the community success.

“The response to homelessness has been an incredibly controversial and divisive issue in this community, as it is in many others,” he said. “But I think this is one area that we all agree on, and where the numbers are manageable that we can achieve success.”

Tom Stagg, director of programs for Housing Matters, the nonprofit that recently won the $2.5 million grant, agrees.

There is a “good number” of shelter beds available for families experiencing homelessness compared to the pool of beds available for the larger single adult homeless population, he said.

Coupled with available rapid rehousing programs — rental subsidies accompanied by one-on-one case management support — he sees the county’s goal as “realistic.”

“We’re in a much better position … to have a big impact and to reach that goal with families,” Stagg said.

Tents at a homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park on Feb. 9, 2021.
Tents at the homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Still, the challenge looms large. Across its 16 homeless shelters, the county currently has 836 beds/units. Of those, more than 80% — or 682 — were occupied as of Tuesday.

All told, 92 beds/units were available as of Wednesday, including three vacant family units and five vacant beds that could be occupied by either individuals or families. (The county shelters currently have 62 beds/units available for people who have to quarantine, isolate or are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.)

Housing Matters’ own shelter, which has 28 individual units for families, is generally at capacity with the only vacancies occurring as part of the turnover flow, according to Stagg. When a family comes into the shelter, the nonprofit plans for them to leave within 3 months from the day they move in. Extensions are allowed based on individual family situations with the goal that families move on to housing in 3-6 months, Stagg said. Last year, the average length of time that families were in the shelter before moving was 6 1/2 months, he said.

Coonerty said he would be willing to explore adding shelter space for families, if that’s what is ultimately needed. But other steps to try to reach the county’s December goal are already underway.

The County Housing Authority has agreed to prioritize homeless families on their waiting list for up to 50 housing vouchers. County leaders also want staff to work with affordable housing developers and existing affordable housing project managers to prioritize homeless families for available units.

The recent $2.5 million grant to Housing Matters — to be delivered in $500,000 increments over the next five years — should help boost the county’s efforts. The grant comes from the Day 1 Families Fund, started by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2018 to help organizations that feed and house families throughout the country. Housing Matters was chosen from a highly competitive pool of applicants and is one of 42 U.S. nonprofits to get a piece of the $105.9 million pie.

One of the group’s goals is to use the funds to enhance the services it already provides in its own shelter and to offer more case management support “so that we’re able to help families move out faster into permanent housing,” Stagg said.

A large portion of the grant money will likely be designated for rapid rehousing services where individuals in need receive help searching for a home and rental assistance to help pay for it, with the goal of having them be on their own after a year or sooner.

The hope is, Stagg said, that some of the funds can be used to rehouse families who don’t meet the eligibility criteria for current services, because their income is too high, for instance. It will also allow the nonprofit to help more families than before.

“We can now also expand to cover more in general,” Stagg said.

One of the areas Housing Matters wants to also focus on is research into the long-term outcomes and impacts of its services to find out what support clients might need four or five years down the line.

“In rapid rehousing and in some of our permanent supportive housing programs we track people for a year or more, but we really don’t know what happens when someone ends the program and they’re in housing,” Stagg said.

For some, Stagg and Coonerty agree, support could be as quick and easy as helping with a security deposit, or working with a landlord. Others may just need to be connected with relatives or friends.

“For some families, it can be as simple as a deposit or one month’s rent,” Stagg said. “And so being able to provide that service quickly and early on … would allow the rest of the system, the shelter and the rehousing programs, to focus on those families who need the longer-term support.”

Follow Patrick Riley on: Twitter. Patrick Riley is Lookout Santa Cruz’s county government accountability reporter. He comes to Lookout from Florida, where he covered Collier County government for the...