At pivotal time in homelessness crisis, Santa Cruz County supervisors pitch major shelter expansion plan

Santa Cruz County supervisors Manu Koenig and Ryan Coonerty are proposing allowing churches, nonprofits and others to create temporary housing and shelters for the homeless in unincorporated areas. It’s “a commitment by the county to step up and do its fair share,” Coonerty says.

Trying to help turn the tide on Santa Cruz County’s homelessness crisis, a pair of county supervisors is proposing a framework under which churches, nonprofits and other organizations could create temporary housing and shelter communities for unhoused residents.

Supervisors Manu Koenig and Ryan Coonerty are bringing their proposal before fellow supervisors at a meeting Tuesday, asking for support to direct county staff to draw up guidelines and policies.

The idea is to allow community organizations to apply for permits to stand up temporary housing on their lots and also identify county sites that could be used for those efforts. Koenig is targeting a goal of 100-plus new shelter units by summer, with long-term goals to be determined.

The push comes at a pivotal moment.

Santa Cruz city council members are considering a controversial ordinance that would greatly limit where unsheltered people can live outdoors within the city limits. And though Santa Cruz County has greatly expanded its emergency shelter capacity through the pandemic, some worry that a decrease in shelter space could contribute to a rise in the number of unsheltered households as the virus-induced crisis begins to ebb and associated federal and state financial resources presumably dry up.

On top of that, there are at least two large tent encampments in Santa Cruz, each believed to be housing more than 100 people, that officials have targeted to be cleared out, potentially scattering more unsheltered people about. One of them — alongside Highways 1 and 9 in Santa Cruz — needs to be cleared by sometime in April, when a major road widening project is to begin, county and city officias say. The second, at San Lorenzo Park in downtown Santa Cruz, was to be shut down late last year by city officials, but the city’s move was blocked by a federal court order which concluded doing so would be unsafe amid the pandemic.

To Coonerty, both Santa Cruz and Watsonville have for too long born too much of the burden of having most of the services and shelters. “This is a commitment by the county to step up and do its fair share,” he said.

Large unregulated encampments, Coonerty said, “aren’t working for anyone,” neither people who are experiencing homelessness nor the community.

“And then also to have it concentrated so heavily in the city is just unfair,” he added. “And so, hopefully, by creating more sites in the unincorporated area, you can both help people experiencing homelessness and the communities that are being impacted.”

Koenig said his goal is to create about 120 housing units by June within the unincorporated area. He acknowledges it’s ambitious.

“But if you think about it, we are dealing with the pending crisis of the money for COVID shelters going away,” Koenig said. “And now having 500 more individuals who were sheltered suddenly back out on the streets. And so it is necessary that we treat it as an emergency and get moving.”

Multiple faith-based organizations have reached out to him, he said, wanting to do something to help — whether that is putting 10 tiny homes on their church property or managing some kind of transitional housing community for people recovering from homelessness.

“Fundamentally we need to enable faith-based organizations, nonprofits, neighborhood groups to create these sorts of housing communities to address homelessness, and it’s just not possible under our current laws in Santa Cruz County,” Koenig said. “So the primary goal is to create a framework by which more people can help us address homelessness in our community to enable an all-hands-on-deck approach to solving this issue.”

Koenig envisions the proposed communities to be a stepping stone for unhoused individuals, more stable than living in a tent but not yet a forever apartment. “I think that a lot of what we’ve been missing is this in-between option,” he said.

The communities could include pallet shelters, Conestoga huts or tiny houses on wheels, among other options. Koenig, along with Supervisor Bruce McPherson, has separately proposed changes to county regulations to allow for more tiny homes to tackle the community’s housing affordability woes.

Pallet shelters at Housing Matters in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Some of the temporary communities could ultimately become permanent, Koenig said, but the idea is to create guidelines by which a private operator could create a county-regulated community that operates within set rules on sanitary conditions, guest policies and other factors.

Where exactly the communities would be allowed is not yet clear. At this stage the supervisors are directing county staff to work on an ordinance, Koenig said. But in Sacramento, for example, the city has allowed communities in public spaces, and industrial and commercial areas. “That could be one route that we take,” he said.

Between staffing, bathrooms and other services, a program like that would still cost some money, Coonerty said. But the hope is that if neither the cities nor the county can solve the homelessness crisis on their own, federal and state dollars will help address the issue.

“Cost, especially as COVID support dries up, will almost certainly be an issue,” Coonerty said.

Other challenges could include pushback from neighbors. Koenig said the city of Santa Cruz tried to do something very similar in 2019. “And when the map came out of what property would be available for this, there was widespread resistance from some of the immediate neighbors,” he said.

Koenig hopes the county can alleviate concerns by making sure the communities are well-managed and well-integrated with the surrounding neighborhoods, and by having a successful pilot project build wider acceptance. “We ultimately want it to be a symbiotic relationship,” he said.