A homeless encampment at Harvey West Park in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

With COVID-related funding to end, county allots $8 million for ‘rehousing wave,’ but not without questions

County Supervisor Manu Koenig is questioning the county’s “rapid rehousing” effort, saying “I’d much rather be paying people who are building housing, or for housing supply itself, rather than paying a bunch of people sitting behind desks.”

As the pandemic appears to wind down and Santa Cruz County tries to ramp up efforts to help unhoused people, county supervisors are allocating about $8 million to help with a transition from emergency shelters into more stable housing.

In a 4-1 vote this week, county supervisors approved sending a mix of state and federal funding to three community organizations tasked with shouldering some of the rehousing lift as the county anticipates having to scale back extra hotel rooms it made available to those in need during the pandemic.

But the non-unanimous vote appeared to highlight disagreements in the approaches to the issue.

Supervisor Manu Koenig cast the lone dissenting vote, saying he was hesitant to allocate all $8 million to so-called rapid rehousing efforts, which are designed to get people into more permanent housing settings with supportive services, rather than have them stay in temporary, stopgap emergency settings like the hotel program.

Koenig argued that spending some money on emergency shelters would provide a “failsafe” once federal funding for those shelters runs out. He also said under the proposed allotments that much of the $8 million would go to staffing costs when some of the funding could instead be spent on buying hundreds of pallet shelters that might more easily put roofs over peoples’ heads as the county continues to weigh a mix of potential solutions to its homelessness crisis.

“I’d much rather be paying people who are building housing, or for housing supply itself, rather than paying a bunch of people sitting behind desks, helping people look for housing that simply doesn’t exist,” Koenig said Tuesday.

But county officials say the rapid rehousing efforts would include funds to help people in need pay rent for a year or two while they find ways to increase their incomes. And some of the money would go to assist people with necessities once they move into a home.

“The entire package contains a lot of different elements that are part of a rehousing wave to make sure we’re not going to return people back to the streets from our COVID-19 sheltering efforts,” Dr. Robert Ratner, the county’s director of the Housing for Health Division, told supervisors.

The problem, explained

Last year, to reduce the spread of the coronavirus among people experiencing homelessness, state of California officials created a non-congregate shelter emergency leasing project known as Project Roomkey. Non-congregate means people weren’t mixed together, but rather stayed in individual rooms.

Santa Cruz County participates in that emergency shelter program by leasing and operating six Project Roomkey hotels.

Additionally, the county established “semi-congregate” emergency sheltering opportunities in the cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville, meaning some people were staying under the same roof.

Together, the expansions have helped more than 450 “homeless and unstably housed” households find temporary shelter during the pandemic, according to county documents. These emergency shelter operations “will likely continue through at least” Sept. 30 with costs covered by Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement, county staff wrote.

But the extra sheltering efforts are expected to come to a close eventually, creating an urgent need for the county to transition as many people as possible into more permanent homes.

“The funding that we’ve used to expand those sheltering programs will be coming to an end when the pandemic comes to an end,” Ratner told county supervisors. “And we really need to work closely with our community partners, folks who own property — and there is property available within Santa Cruz County and the neighboring communities — to help folks get into housing.”

The ultimate goal, Ratner added, is to help people get into places that meet federal, state and local standards for housing that include having safe, secure physical locations with access to electricity, water and sewage — not necessarily pallet shelters, which are typically used as emergency sheltering options.

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

How the $8 million is to be spent

The money approved Tuesday will allow Housing Matters — the county’s largest nonprofit working on solutions to homelessness — and Abode Services — a Fremont-based nonprofit that provides services to homeless people in Watsonville — to form new rapid rehousing teams, Ratner told Lookout Friday.

Each team will have a staff of five and be able to work with 80 to 100 households at a point time.

“Those programs also have flexible money to help with rental assistance and other client needs to help people get back into housing,” Ratner said.

The funding approved includes:

  • $3 million to Housing Matters for rapid re-housing and supportive services;
  • $3.2 million to Abode Services for rapid re-housing and supportive services;
  • $1.2 million to Abode for a Real Estate Partnership Program to link resources and guests with private property owners and managers;
  • $700,000 to the Community Action Board for flexible rehousing assistance funding, anticipated to serve 100 to 150 households, to help people with things they need to move into apartments, from fees for applications and security deposits to household items and furniture.

The bigger picture

On top of the funding divvied up Tuesday, the county has been looking to an array of additional measures to propel its rehousing wave.

The board previously approved the county creating its own 5-person supportive services team in the Housing for Health Division, which is anticipated to serve between 80 to 100 households, according to Ratner. Recruitment to hire staff for that team is underway. Additionally, the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Cruz recently set aside 75 long-term rental assistance slots for non-elderly — meaning 18 to 61-year-olds — homeless and disabled households.

Nearly $2 million from a batch of federal funding the county received will be used to continue to support pandemic sheltering operations this year, Ratner said. The county is also working on exploring applying for a state grant program, known as Project Homekey, to buy properties, whether they’re hotels or other properties, that it could use for expanding permanent or temporary homes.

Santa Cruz County, which recently established goals to reduce homelessness over the next three years, is not alone in grappling with a crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.

California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla sent a letter to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge this week advocating for more funding to address the issue statewide.

In Santa Cruz County, the funding approved represents both a substantial lift and an opportunity for the organizations involved. Housing Matters Executive Director Phil Kramer said his group plans to hire 8 new employees, including outreach and assessment coordinators, case managers and housing retention specialists.

“This is a huge effort and will require a significant expansion of our existing supportive services department,” he said in an email Friday.

Because the pandemic made it necessary for communities, like Santa Cruz County, to quickly make temporary housing or sheltering available, organizations, like Housing Matters and Abode, are now able to more easily access people in need, said Katie Fantin, senior director of housing programs for Abode in Santa Clara County.

“It’s a pretty extraordinary opportunity to provide longer-term housing for these folks, because at times in the past I think it’s harder to access people, or to find them, if they’re living in … encampments or they’re living in vehicles, it could be a challenge to access and develop relationships,” she said. “Now we have a pretty prime opportunity where folks — we know where they are.”

Rapid rehousing programs in other counties, including in nearby Alameda County, also have shown success. “Just around the corner from us, 400 people got moved out of COVID shelters into housing, which is not throwing money away,” Randy Morris, the county’s human services director, said.