‘They need to know they matter’: Why a humanistic approach is core to this new homelessness group’s work

Evan Morrison of Santa Cruz Free Guide
Evan Morrison of the Santa Cruz Free Guide.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Evan Morrison’s four-month-old Santa Cruz Free Guide, which has been running the Safe RV Parking program at the Armory, has caught the attention of others who keep a close eye on homelessness response efforts. It’s why the City of Santa Cruz called on the Free Guide to pop up an emergency shelter downtown during the worst nights of winter storms. Morrison believes successful homelessness response begins with a specific mindset, grounded in empathy.

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A Q&A with Evan Morrison of Santa Cruz Free Guide

Trying to help triage the raw realities of homelessness — substance use and mental health disorders, physical disabilities and financial ruin, despair and desperation — isn’t the right work for everyone.

As another point-in-time count approaches, and those trying to solve the issue in Santa Cruz County inch the seemingly intractable needle forward, there’s a need for people who can both inspire and collaborate.

Ask around with key stakeholders — from the City of Santa Cruz, the county, nonprofits and longtime advocates — and they tend to land on a common name and refrain: Have you talked to Evan Morrison of the Santa Cruz Free Guide?

Morrison’s four-month-old organization has been running the Safe RV Parking program at the Armory in DeLaveaga Park for the City of Santa Cruz and recently helped pop up an emergency shelter for 10 nights at Depot Park after conditions at a larger evacuation shelter opened by the city and county at the Civic Auditorium became untenable.

Robert Ratner, director of the county's Housing for Health division, during Monday morning's PIT count.

Return of the PIT count

The point-in-time count — which is used to approximate an area’s homeless population — will now be conducted annually by Santa Cruz County in an effort to provide more consistency in survey data gathered. What we know in advance of the Feb. 26 count.

  • Last February’s count found 2,299 unhoused people living in the county, a 6% increase since 2019.
  • The count, originally slated for late January and used by the federal government to allocate funds, was delayed by the recent storms.
  • Says Robert Ratner, the director of the county’s Housing For Health division: “Completing a comprehensive survey every year instead of two years increases the chances of receiving additional funding from [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], can help improve the quality and accuracy of data, and can provide more timely information for improving collective efforts to address homelessness.”
  • Go here for a breakdown of last year’s PIT count results — which included several surprising results for local leaders.
  • Go here for Lookout’s real-time coverage of the 2022 count.

But what makes this small group of individuals Morrison has pulled together unique from many others making similar efforts? He said it’s their ability to keep the humanity of the clientele front and center.

“The people that we work with have to know that they matter,” Morrison said. “Because they absolutely do matter.”

Morrison said the process begins with finding the type of people who can talk to those in the unhoused population in a way that conveys that message and builds essential trust.

“People who are homeless in our community often don’t have one thing keeping them homeless, they have three to five things,” he said. “They have also experienced shame or victimization for some of the barriers that they face.”

So a passion for cutting through stigma and making people feel human comes first, Morrison said. He came to the homelessness response world as a career change five years ago, but his own natural passion for the work is contagious, others say.

“I remember first meeting him at Housing Matters after we’d both started working there,” said program manager Corey Mosely. “You could just tell from the energy he brought that he was someone who was going to get stuff done.”

Morrison says those who make up his small team now — they include a program manager, a case manager and a housing navigator as full-timers and several other part-timers — all have the “it” factor essential to doing this kind of work.

“We can teach people how to do the work, but it’s very difficult to teach someone to have the right mindset,” he said. “Doing this work is going to force you to examine your deeply held beliefs.”

Morrison, 40, grew up in the Campbell/Saratoga area and went to Westmont High School. He and his wife bought a home in Boulder Creek in 2014 and began a young family that now includes two daughters.

He said he comes to lines of work that attempt to help others honestly. He suffered through extreme depression during his high school years, providing him a better understanding of how people suffering from mental conditions, despite their best efforts, can fall on hard times.

Corey Mosely, program director for the Free Guide.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Morrison was working as an administrator in hospice care before joining nonprofit Housing Matters five years ago in a role supporting homeless veterans. It was there, getting a close-up look at the homeless response efforts locally, that the light bulbs began going off for him.

“Before that career change, I really didn’t know what to expect with homelessness and I had no reason to think it was a problem we could solve,” he said. “But the more I have thought about it, the more I believe it is absolutely something we can solve.”

Lookout caught up with Morrison as he and his staff, many of whom also live in the San Lorenzo Valley, fought their way through mudslides and downed trees to get to the Armory and Depot Park to support the homeless as atmospheric rivers jockeyed for position off the coast.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Lookout: Talk about the type of people you look for to join your team and what distinguishes the mindset.

Evan Morrison: It’s really easy for people who are homeless to feel like they are society’s rejects. So the first thing I am looking for in potential staff is the ability to see and treat these folks as equals. The people that we work with have to know that they matter — because they absolutely do matter. Next, we have to be open and we have to be nimble. Every person we work with has unique challenges, and expresses those challenges in unique ways. We have to be ready to adapt to each person — and each person we work with has the potential to teach us new things about working with this population as a whole. We have to be open to that.

Lookout: So mindset is more important than experience?

Morrison: Education is good. But mindset is better. We can teach people how to do the work, but it’s very difficult to teach someone to have the right mindset. Doing this work is going to force you to examine your deeply held beliefs. You will see the decisions you make affect people on a real, tangible level. You will find yourself having to take the time to solve hard dilemmas that affect the people we work with — and we need folks who will take that time and not rush through it. We want our staff, our whole team, to be empathetic to what people who are homeless are going through. And we actually assess people’s empathy in our interview process.

Evan Morrison of Santa Cruz Free Guide walks among parked RVs
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: It sounds like an intuitive way to find the people who are truly committed to very hard work. Why isn’t that the norm?

Morrison: I don’t think most organizations have the scouting and hiring model that we do. They more often have a traditional corporate model of hiring, and that’s just not gonna work in this field. I think that model is broken in general throughout the United States. But certainly in this field, it’s just not gonna work. What you get on paper from someone is not enough by any means.

Lookout: Explain why building trust in these relationships is so important.

Morrison: Treating folks with dignity is about giving people psychological safety. If they feel safe to express what’s real with our staff, then our staff can learn what they need to know to provide the right kind of support for each person. Without that, a service provider will find themselves spinning their wheels with clients.

Evan Morrison of Santa Cruz Free Guide with intern Amelia Enzminger
Evan Morrison of the Santa Cruz Free Guide with intern Amelia Enzminger.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: People talk a lot about how money the city and county receive for homelessness gets spent, and why it doesn’t seem to help. What do you see?

Morrison: There’s a recent report that came out that it would cost $8.1 billion a year to end homelessness in California. I believe it was over eight years. And our own math that we’ve done in our organization is that to start the work of ending homelessness here, the total cost per year would be about $65 million for five to eight years. We have to commit to spending that basically on top of what we’re spending now. And that’s a big fiscal hole to fill.

So I get when we get a one-time $10 million influx and people think that’s a lot. But we’re throwing it into a hole that really needs $65 million. So it’s really hard to be close to effective when that’s the level of need. Because you can do one program well, and that’s fine, but we need like five times the program capacity that we have in this county.

Lookout: What are we doing wrong in trying to get this problem properly addressed?

Morrison: I think a shift needs to happen in how we’re thinking about homelessness. I think it’s easy to think of homelessness as a chronic thing that will never be going away. And if you’re thinking like that, then you’re not going to be thinking in terms of how do we end this? Now that I’ve been thinking in those terms for a few years, I think it’s actually pretty darn realistic. It’s just that the whole community, not just county staff, not just our elected officials, needs to wrap their heads around spending a significant portion of money to do it.

Evan Morrison of Santa Cruz Free Guide
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

And understanding that it’s worth it, that all the ancillary costs that we face will go down. Costs of going to the emergency room, costs of interactions with police. All the costs of mental health and substance use services will go down if we end homelessness. But also all those folks who are currently homeless and busy being homeless, because being homeless is pretty much a full-time job, or going to be in a position where they can now contribute. They can join the workforce, they can be parts of their communities. They can be contributing people in our society. And there’s a cost to us that they can’t do that right now.

Lookout: We like to think of ourselves as a compassionate community, but are we willing and able to spend what’s needed realistically to make a difference?

Morrison: The county’s budget is a billion dollars a year. So $50 million is 5% of the budget. Is it unreasonable to ask for 5% of the county budget to go to homeless services? I don’t think so. Is everything else in that budget absolutely necessary? Maybe, I don’t know. Unfortunately, my only expertise is in this one issue. But if we have a budget of a billion dollars, it doesn’t seem unrealistic to me to allocate $50 million to this issue.

Lookout: You said your battle with depression in high school has helped inform your work. How so?

Morrison: Having dealt with mental health struggles absolutely gives me insight into what a lot of people who are homeless are experiencing. Though unaddressed mental health issues are only one aspect of homelessness, that experience certainly guides me programmatically and also helps me identify ways to support folks. Part of how that experience guides me is often just knowing what sorts of situations are going to be triggering for our clients and setting up our programs so those situations are avoided.

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