Tents and bikes at a homeless encampment by the San Lorenzo River
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

By 2024, Santa Cruz County aims to decrease number of homeless households by more than 25%

A pair of items approved by Santa Cruz County supervisors Tuesday are the latest in a flurry of homelessness-related measures that have come before county and municipal leaders. But finding funding will be key.

Santa Cruz County is moving forward with a strategic framework to tackle its homelessness crisis over the next three years — setting some ambitious goals, including reducing the number of households experiencing homelessness by 26% by 2024.

County supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved the 3-year framework, called Housing for a Healthy Santa Cruz, and directed county staff to return with a progress report by August.

Under it, the county aims to invest tens of millions of dollars in programs geared toward reducing the overall number of people experiencing homelessness from 1,400-plus total homeless households to 1,034 by January 2024. But fully funding the effort could prove difficult.

With one of the highest rates of homelessness in the state at 79.3 per 10,000 residents, the challenge facing the county is substantial. The most recent annual Homeless Point-in-Time Count, conducted in January 2019, found 2,167 people experiencing homelessness on a single night countywide. They represent the 1,400-plus distinct households without a home.

Nearly three-fourths of households experiencing homelessness “were housed within the county prior to becoming homeless,” records also show. “This is a very serious crisis with an awful lot of suffering,” said Randy Morris, the county’s human services director.

Along with their broader plan to tackle homelessness, supervisors separately moved forward with a proposal pitched by Supervisors Manu Koenig and Ryan Coonerty to increase sheltering and temporary housing. Though slightly tweaked Tuesday at the behest of other supervisors, the proposal generally asks to create a county process for community organizations to stand up temporary housing, and to identify publicly owned parcels for those efforts. County staff are expected to return later this year with an inventory of potential sites and an estimate of costs involved.

The pair of items is the latest in a flurry of homelessness-related measures that have come before county and municipal leaders. Earlier this year, county supervisors adopted a policy goal of wanting to find shelter or housing for all homeless families with children by year’s end. And the city of Santa Cruz has been considering a controversial ordinance that would greatly limit where unsheltered people can live outdoors within the city limits.

Virtually any potential solution for homelessness requires additional investment, and Santa Cruz County is no exception.

The estimated cost of implementing the Housing for a Healthy Santa Cruz framework’s recommendations totals $65 million annually, officials said.

Next year, efforts related to homelessness will have about $30 million in funding, which includes money from local governments and federal officials. Of that, about a third is one-time funding that will last a year or two, so it appears more funding will need to be found or the program will need to be slimmed down.

Among the county’s goals in its 3-year plan:

  • Shortening the time people remain unhoused or in programs prior to secure housing.
  • Increasing the rate at which people find housing.
  • Decreasing the number of people that become homeless.

By 2024, the county is looking to greatly expand its inventory of temporary housing beds, those in emergency shelters and transitional housing. The aim is to go from the current 440 temporary housing beds to 600. Rapid rehousing slots would be more than tripled, from 140 to 490. And permanent supportive housing slots would grow from 500 to 600.

“The recommendations are to grow our capacity in all of these areas,” said Robert Ratner, the county’s director of the Housing for Health Division.

Rapid rehousing — providing services and time-limited rental support to help homeless individuals or families move as quickly as possible into permanent housing — is one area the county wants to especially focus on. A consultant’s analysis recommends that Santa Cruz County “invest significantly” in expanding its rapid rehousing slots, Ratner said.

Jose Dante Espinosa, 34, was taken into custody Tuesday in the area of San Lorenzo Park near Soquel Avenue on a charge...

“Relative to other communities we haven’t invested as highly in this approach, and there’s evidence that for many people experiencing homelessness in our community this can be a cost-effective strategy to helping folks get back into housing,” he said.

By the end of 2023, the county is looking to reduce the length of stay in emergency shelters from 76 days to 60; in transitional housing from 413 days to 250; and in rapid rehousing from 281 days to 180. It also aims to increase the percentage of people who exit from the county’s shelter programs into permanent housing.

The county’s homelessness crisis is closely intertwined with its affordable-housing woes.

“We have to find ways to close that gap,” Ratner said.

To tackle housing affordability and homelessness issues in Santa Cruz County, First District Supervisor Manu Koenig...

The group that’s most at risk of experiencing homelessness is at the extremely low-income level. They generally live at around 200% of the federal poverty level in Santa Cruz, Ratner said. “The gap in affordable homes for very low-income, extremely low-income households in this community is around 10,000,” he said.

Three-fourths of extremely low-income households in Santa Cruz County are paying more than half of their income on housing costs, compared to just 4% of moderate-income households.

As for the $65 million annual price tag, the most need for additional resources is in the area of affordable housing, shelter and transitional housing and proactive outreach, Ratner said. “We’re going to have to make some difficult decisions about where we invest our funding, because it’s not likely to get us to that $65 million level in the short term,” he said.

With the pandemic beginning to ebb, county officials are also working on ways to transition as many homeless individuals as possible from emergency shelters — which were greatly expanded to meet increased demands — into permanent housing.

County staff are planning to present their “fairly massive rehousing effort” to supervisors later this month, Ratner said. “We have to start a process of preparing to demobilize that sheltering effort,” he said.

Tuesday’s other homelessness-related item aims to tackle that issue, too. Coonerty and Koenig’s proposal would create a framework under which churches, nonprofits and other organizations could create temporary housing and shelter communities for unhoused residents.

One key component of the pitch is to identify and prioritize available private and public property. But while Coonerty and Koenig initially proposed to focus on areas outside of the county’s four cities, Supervisor Zach Friend said the inventory should be pulled for the entire area to have more complete data.

He also asked for a requirement to be removed that would have put the proposed 120 housing units that the program initially intends to create within the urban services line. Limiting it to within the urban services line would preclude communities such as Bonny Doon or Boulder Creek from participating, Friend said.

“I feel like it eliminates a lot of possibilities as far as faith-based organizations or other places that could also work within all of our districts,” he said.

Supervisors agreed to have staff in its report include sites outside the urban services line but with existing infrastructure.

They also agreed to a request from Chairperson Bruce McPherson to exclude county parks from being considered as sites for temporary shelters. “I just want to protect our parks for the entire general public,” he said.