Lookout Update: Homeless count shows large increase among veterans, substance users and mentally ill; big decrease for families

An unhoused man and his dog along the Pajaro River in Watsonville during February's count.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz County released an initial overview Friday of results of the Feb. 28 point-in-time homeless count, and there was good and bad news. Housing For Health Director Robert Ratner will go more in-depth with the county’s board of supervisors on Tuesday.

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The preliminary results of the biennial point-in-time count, released as an overview Friday, presented a mixed bag on the state of homelessness in Santa Cruz County.

They show a small increase overall in unhoused individuals since the previous count, in 2019, essentially keeping the broad problem at a status quo numerically. But individual findings were more stark, in both good and bad ways.

Survey results released by the county found a much larger increase in the most vulnerable populations who suffer from disabilities: seniors, veterans and those experiencing mental health and substance use issues. They also turned up a large decrease in families experiencing homelessness.

The county hasn’t yet made full results of the count and survey available. Housing For Health Director Robert Ratner will present a larger overview to the board of supervisors on Tuesday.

“The 2022 PIT Count shows significant progress in addressing homelessness among families and youth,” Ratner said in the county’s release. “However, there have been significant increases in homelessness among seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities.”

A team of Lookout reporters and photographers spread out around the county to detail the PIT count process in the early hours of Feb. 28. The early takeaway from many involved was that the count was low. PIT counts are known to be a conservative estimate since they account for only a single-day snapshot.

Lookout also detailed the county’s struggle with homelessness in a three-part series called Unhoused Santa Cruz.

The preliminary PIT count data shows an estimated 2,299 people experienced homelessness at the time of the count (a 6% increase), including 1,774 who were unsheltered.

Two key new data points gained through the PIT counts survey process: (1) a statistically significant increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness who self-report substance use disorders (1,073) and serious mental illness (818); and (2) the number of veterans experiencing homelessness more than doubled from 2019.

The release sent by the county states, “Resource and eligibility limitations for serving these populations, limited housing-focused outreach, stigma associated with behavioral health conditions, and closures or reductions in residential capacity during the pandemic may have contributed to these increases. Behavioral health treatment efficacy is limited when people do not have stable living environments. Deeper and sustained investments, cross-system collaboration, and community support for serving these populations are needed to shift these trends.”

The overview notes that the county’s housing shortage remains at the core of homelessness.

“The lack of affordable housing remains the biggest barrier to preventing and ending homelessness in the community,” Ratner said. “We have more work to do to meet the objectives set forth in our Housing for a Healthy Santa Cruz shared framework to ensure all residents have stable, safe, and healthy places to live.”

As Lookout reported last week, the Santa Cruz-Watsonville area trails only San Francisco as the country’s least affordable for renters.

The county notes current data showing that just 65% of homeless individuals with subsidized housing vouchers have been able to find a home, and Santa Cruz County overall remains behind on capacity targets for housing in key areas, including very-low-income affordable housing.

Project Homekey is one of the county’s efforts to provide more inventory.

In the Bay Area, homelessness is up 9%, according to preliminary figures released by counties in May. This includes San Francisco (down 3.5%), Santa Clara County (up 3%), Alameda County (up 22%), Contra Costa County (up 35%) and others. Homelessness in Monterey County declined 15.5% and in San Benito increased 21% since the most recent PIT count.

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