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In Don Lane’s two-part October op-ed series, he brings up four positions and strategies that people who have been following houseless issues have heard repeatedly. We have a cycle on constant repeat in Santa Cruz. Some years it seems like the city’s houseless services lack funding, and all of its efforts are put into enforcement, in the form of camp sweeps, not in trying to address people’s actual needs. Other years, we suddenly find ourselves with lots of one-time funding and it seems as though the city is quickly getting people into temporary, if not “permanent,” housing. A year or two go by, though, and when that one-time funding runs out, temporary housing closes and people are evicted back onto the street.

Once this happens, criminalization soon becomes the primary “policy tool” once more.

Unfortunately, this cycle is about to come up again. The last $6 million of pandemic emergency funds from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan (ARPA) are about to run out. The majority of these funds ($4.8 million) have been allocated to maintain a 135-space tent shelter at the Armory run by the Salvation Army. Come June 2024, however, most if not all of the camp’s residents may be evicted back to the streets — left with nothing but trauma and heartbreak. Other shelters throughout the county are in a similar position, being propped up purely by one-time funds that are unlikely to be replenished in the coming year.

At the May 23 Santa Cruz City Council meeting, Deputy City Manager Lisa Murphy discussed the efficacy of the Armory tent shelter, which costs about $35,000 per person per year. She revealed that most participants are left without housing after a six-month stay because in her words, “… there is no housing available.” If we are aware that our investment in case workers and temporary shelter more often than not produces poor outcomes for people, why are we spending so much money pretending this tactic works?

Given that we are on the precipice of a mass collapse of shelter infrastructure and a likely return to criminalization as our primary policy tool, we would like to propose a five-step solution to the homelessness issue. Here is what we think the city and/or county should do:

  1. Purchase 900 to 1,000 recreational vehicles and give them to unsheltered people to live in.
  2. Decriminalize living in a vehicle on public streets throughout the county and allow RVs to ignore parking stripes.
  3. Set up 24/7 access points with trash receptacles, safe needle disposal and blackwater/greywater dumping throughout the county.
  4. Train case workers to assist recipients with obtaining driver’s licenses and operating their RVs.
  5. Provide permanent parking spaces for those unable to operate a vehicle near a 24/7 access point.

Imagine living in a city in which we actually guarantee a humane standard for all. How amazing would that be?

Not only would these five steps make everyone’s lives better, it would also be more cost-effective. Used RVs cost about 50 to 100 times less than a unit of extremely low-income or permanent supportive housing — and they offer access to electricity, a private bathroom and shower, kitchenette, living space and storage space.

Don Lane is right: Camp sweeps are more expensive than services, but what he’s missing is that giving people RVs and service infrastructure and letting them park on public streets is cheaper than temporary shelter programs. For the cost of keeping the Armory tent camp open for just one year, we could instead buy all 135 residents a used RV.

Jasmeen Miah (left) and Reggie Meisler and  have come up with five steps to help Santa Cruz's unhoused population.
Jasmeen Miah (left) and Reggie Meisler and have come up with five steps to help Santa Cruz’s unhoused population. Credit: Via Reggie Meisler

This is already being done in other contexts. In cases where our court system is unable to place someone on parole into housing, the courts are given the right to purchase an RV or a detached trailer for them instead. Clearly, the state sees that RVs are a valid and cost-effective solution for housing people. Let’s expand this context to include more people.

It’s time to stop pretending like this issue is more complex than it really is.

We can end unsheltered houselessness almost immediately — and for less than the price of a school education bond. The courts are already in agreement that RVs are the answer for people who can’t find housing; the rest of our system just has to catch up and act accordingly.

Reggie Meisler is a member of Santa Cruz Cares and has been involved in activism and advocacy for people living in tents and vehicles since 2019, when he joined the Democratic Socialists of America in helping provide mutual aid to people living in “Ross Camp.” Reggie is currently on the stakeholder committee for the oversized vehicle ordinance (OVO).

Jasmeen “Jazz” Miah is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Santa Cruz. She is running for the city council of Santa Cruz in District 1 on a platform of abolition, and she is a member of Santa Cruz Cares and National Alliance for Mental Illness of Santa Cruz County (NAMISCC).