Cars come within several feet of the homeless encampment at Highways 1 and 9.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Government

With ‘no relief in sight,’ Santa Cruz leaders seek Newsom’s help on homelessness amid Highway 1 snafu

As a major CalTrans construction project that would displace 100 unhoused people looms, city and county leaders are writing Gov. Gavin Newsom, urging him to free up state money — or even use of the National Guard — in the clearing of the large encampment near Highways 1 and 9.

The city of Santa Cruz is being overwhelmed by its homelessness crisis, and it urgently needs help from the state, according to a joint letter that city and county officials have sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The pleas to the governor come as city, county and state officials are arm-wrestling over what to do with a 100-person homeless encampment near the intersection of Highways 1 and 9 in advance of major Highway 1 widening project that’s set to begin in April. The busy intersection is in the city limits, but the highways and inhabited right-of-way are state property.

As the clock ticks, the city, county and state governments are struggling to come to an agreement over who should foot the bill for clearing out the camp and relocating the people who live there.

Local officials are requesting emergency funding and other support from Newsom to resolve the highway issue. In Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers’ letter, which is also signed by County Supervisors Ryan Coonerty and Bruce McPherson, she specifically cites the possibility of receiving unspent funds from Project Roomkey, a pandemic-related housing program Newsom launched in 2020. (The full text of the letter is at the end of this story.)

Meyers also pitches “National Guard assistance to transition individuals to a temporary site and then into shelter, or a trailer program” similar to what is being used to shelter some transition-aged youth in Santa Cruz County.

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County leaders could soon follow suit with a similar letter to Newsom. Supervisors at their upcoming meeting Tuesday will be asked if they want to direct McPherson, the board’s chair, to write a letter to the governor asking him to authorize CalTrans “to abate the encampment,” according to a board memo.

In that letter, the county would also ask the state to cover the city of Santa Cruz’s trash removal costs that have accrued to date, in addition to future expenses at the site. Due to the magnitude of the crisis of unhoused individuals in the area, all affected jurisdictions and agencies have to work together and coordinate to help people in need, a board memo submitted by McPherson and Coonerty states.

“We feel that agencies governed by the State should not abdicate responsibility for their properties and put the burdens on other public agencies, especially when activities on these properties are causing serious negative impacts to the surrounding community,” the two supervisors wrote. “Unfortunately, this is the current situation at the intersection of Highways 1 and 9 in Santa Cruz, with the city of Santa Cruz left to deal with an unmanaged encampment on property that they do not own.”

Despite numerous meetings in recent months, during which city officials asked CalTrans to provide property for homeless campers, there has been no resolution. CalTrans has rejected at least two properties the city has pitched for relocation, according to city officials. Lookout’s attempts to reach Newsom’s office about the issue have been unsuccessful.

So far, the city has paid for daily and twice-monthly trash pickup at the encampment, but moving dozens of people to a new location is expected to be a much more arduous — and expensive — task.

“As of the date of this letter, city, county and state staff and elected officials have met no less than a dozen times to explore relocation, funding, and service options,” Meyers’ letter said. “Unfortunately, those meetings have reached a stalemate with no viable options provided by the state officials, including access to state land/parks, emergency grants and other resources. In fact, CalTrans has indicated that the agency only has resources and funding to support the hazardous waste cleanup once the encampment is removed.”

Conditions at the encampment have deteriorated over time to create a “public health and safety hazard,” city officials say. The camp’s location near a busy, main entry point to Santa Cruz, also puts those living in the area and those commuting through the intersection at risk, according to the city.

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The situation at Highways 1 and 9 is an example of how the problem of homelessness in Santa Cruz has reached a fever pitch — and yet the city is not financially equipped to handle it, officials argue in the letter.

Senator John Laird and Assembly member Mark Stone were both copied on the correspondence.

Richard Stapler, a spokesman for Laird, said Friday that the state senator is aware of the letter from city and county leaders and his office will be working with state officials, including CalTrans. He said the letter provides an “excellent roadmap” to help find solutions.

“It’s a humanitarian issue that needs to be addressed,” Stapler said, adding that the senator and his office will be working through the upcoming state budget process to begin addressing the issues raised.

In their letter, Meyers, Coonerty and McPherson point out that the pandemic has only exacerbated the area’s homelessness crisis.

“Homelessness was a crisis in Santa Cruz before the pandemic, and the number of people experiencing homelessness has only increased. In 2019, the rate of homelessness was 185 per 10,000 residents — a rate 25% higher than Los Angeles and more than double the rate of San Francisco, Oakland and any other jurisdiction in the county,” the letter says.

This year, Santa Cruz is expecting to spend almost $4 million on the issue of homelessness, according to the letter. But because the city’s total population is so small, it receives a proportionally small amount of relief funding from the state — despite its “big-city problems.”

Local leaders are asking the state to make its funding decisions more reflective of that reality. When it comes to COVID-19 relief funding, city officials believe Santa Cruz needs a larger share.

And in the longterm, Santa Cruz leaders want the city to receive direct funding from the state and federal government to combat homelessness. As the funding process currently stands, Santa Cruz County receives funding for health and human services programs, and it then allocates portions to its municipalities.

Meyers, Coonerty and McPherson also asked Newsom to “advocate for new funding for the legal removal and storage of homeless individuals’ belongings” and money to clean areas where homeless residents live. Santa Cruz has, in the past, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on cleaning of former encampment sites, such as the Pogonip. Additionally, the city and county would benefit from legislative expansion of funding for temporary housing and facilities to care for people struggling with mental illnesses, the letter says.

Read more . . .

Here’s the full text of Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers’ letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, which is also signed by County Supervisors Ryan Coonerty and Bruce McPherson: