An encampment in Santa Cruz'z Pogonip open space.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Santa Cruz County 2023 point-in-time count shows lowest homelessness level in over a decade — but ‘still a lot of gaps’

Santa Cruz County’s homeless population decreased by more than 20% compared to last year, according to a February survey. But local officials point to ways the county can continue to improve, including better financial-assistance resources and tenants-rights education, paired with more support from federal and state governments. The one-day count has its limitations, and one advocate says “it doesn’t feel like there have been a lot of big wins” in the past year.

Homelessness fell by more than 20% this year across Santa Cruz County, to the lowest levels since 2011, according to results of the annual point-in-time (PIT) count released Thursday by the county.

The PIT count is federally designated and is conducted in the early hours of the morning on one day in the winter. It is meant to provide a picture of homelessness in jurisdictions throughout the United States. Santa Cruz County’s PIT count took place Feb. 23.

The 2023 report shows that the county saw a 21.5% decline in the number of people experiencing homelessness, to 1,804, down from nearly 2,300 last year. Every local city saw declines in its unhoused populations except for Watsonville, which saw a 15% increase. The number of unhoused families with children increased, as well as the number of unhoused K-12 students. Additionally, 3 out of 10 unhoused individuals were employed in some way.

Nearly 80% of unhoused people were unsheltered, and nearly half of those slept in vehicles. Although 65% of families experiencing homelessness had access to shelter, almost all unaccompanied minors and adults under the age of 24 were unsheltered. The data notes that local homelessness “disproportionately impacts persons of color,” and that 44% surveyed identified as Hispanic or Latino.

While the latest numbers show some positive trends, local officials acknowledge that Santa Cruz County has not gone far enough to tackle homelessness. One in every 146 county residents still cannot access housing, according to a release by Housing for Health, a division of the county’s Human Services department.

Santa Cruz County Housing for Health Division Director Robert Ratner told Lookout that the county saw an influx of resources from federal and state government agencies in the wake of the COVID pandemic. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded the county more than 300 housing vouchers for unhoused people. Ratner added that housing agencies in the county have begun working together more effectively, too.

“The challenge for sustaining this is really going to be making housing more affordable,” he said. “Even with that progress, there’s also signs of other challenges that came up in the past year.”

Ratner points to the worsening conditions in South County, which he believes were exacerbated by the winter’s storm flooding. That lost or damaged housing stock caused instability for many, and disproportionately affected the Latino population.

Evan Morrison, executive director of Santa Cruz Free Guide — an organization that connects unhoused individuals to necessary services — said the noticeable decrease in the observed homeless population is a bit surprising since “it doesn’t feel like there have been a lot of big wins” in the past year when it comes to getting a significant number of people off the streets.

Santa Cruz police and other officials began the process of clearing the Benchlands homeless encampment Tuesday
Men carry belongings during last fall’s clearing of the Benchlands encampment along the San Lorenzo River.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The City of Santa Cruz’s tent-based safe sleeping program at 1220 River St. has been working well, as has the Free Guide’s RV safe parking program, Morrison said. “I think we are starting to stand up programs that are clearly effective in helping people end their homelessness,” he said. “But I think there are still a lot of gaps.”

The PIT count figures dropped by more than 400 between 2022 and 2023. Morrison said this year’s data likely undercounts the true size of the county’s homeless population. “It’s not unrealistic that we housed 400 people,” Morrison said. “But what isn’t accounted for is that probably another 400 people entered homelessness during that time,” he said. “And we did not house 800 people.”

Ratner said his data shows that the county got about 640 people into housing over the past year, but agreed that others lost housing during that same time frame.

“We kind of know what works, but we’re not consistently resourced to pull it off,” he said. “If the federal and state government can provide more consistent, stable funding to the local level, we’re going to make more progress.”

The deluge of atmospheric rivers that hit the region over the winter months could have played a role in any undercount, Morrison said, since many unsheltered people sought shelter during the bad weather.

“We did the count in between severely harsh conditions, and that may have affected our ability to count people,” he said. “People would have adjusted where they were living outdoors because of the storms.”

That’s a major disadvantage of conducting a count in just one day, Ratner agreed.

“There are moments like that where you might be able to stay at someone’s home or use the little bit of money you have to go into a hotel because the weather is so bad,” he said. “That could be a factor because it’s only one day.”

Morrison said a comprehensive homelessness-prevention program is perhaps the most vital component missing from the local response — and that’s the main reason he is skeptical that homelessness has dropped as much as the 2023 PIT figures indicate.

An unhoused individual stands outside his tent in a section of Pogonip that was not yet slated to be cleared out on June 5.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“In an ideal scenario, every person in a position where they might become homeless would know who to call and where to go for help,” he said, adding that homelessness-prevention programs are underfunded across the country. “I actually think that’s pretty rare in our community. A lot of people become homeless without knowing what resources are available to them.”

Morrison added that connecting with each unhoused person in the county is the only way to make a meaningful dent in the region’s challenges. “If we’re going to end or dramatically reduce homelessness, someone is going to have to get to know each and every one of these people,” he said. “Then we’ll really have good numbers.”

Ratner said he also believes that the county could do a better job of building up financial resources to help people on the brink of homelessness — including educating tenants on their rights as tenants and their rights to legal counsel.

“Really making sure there’s someone to help [tenants] understand their rights and enforce them,” he said. “I’m excited that a lot of jurisdictions around the country are doing that, and that’s something we definitely could look at here.”

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