Some unhoused residents moved to Santa Cruz's Pogonip open space after the city cleared the Benchlands
Some unhoused residents moved to Santa Cruz’s Pogonip open space after the city cleared the Benchlands encampment along the San Lorenzo River.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Homelessness fell in Santa Cruz County, but advocates say too many still struggle with low wages, food insecurity

Local housing leaders say they are pleased to see Santa Cruz County’s homelessness levels falling, but highlighted the deep-rooted issues that pervade the county. Those include food security, not enough shelters, low wages and no effective way to identify and track the entire unhoused population.

Santa Cruz County housing leaders say that this year’s point-in-time (PIT) count results showing a significant drop in homelessness should be celebrated, but implementing more measures and services like better ways to identify and track people living on the streets, higher local wages and a form of universal basic income could work to prevent homelessness in the first place.

The 2023 PIT count, conducted in the early morning hours of Feb. 23, showed the lowest level of homelessness in Santa Cruz County since 2011. It is a federally designated process and is meant to provide a snapshot of homelessness in jurisdictions throughout the United States. Santa Cruz County’s recorded unhoused population dropped to 1,804, down from almost 2,300 last year. While that means local jurisdictions have made strides in getting people into shelter and services when they are unhoused, others continue to fall into homelessness at the same time.

“I find ourselves in this weird juxtaposition where we should be celebrating the drop, but the dissonance is that every day we are turning people away from shelter and supportive services,” said Phil Kramer, CEO of nonprofit Housing Matters. “There are still people that we’re unfortunately not able to connect with and provide a pathway to housing. Both realities are true.”

The PIT count took place prior to the city-led clearing of the Pogonip encampment, where close to 100 people moved after the clearing of the Benchlands last fall. Santa Cruz Homelessness Response Manager Larry Imwalle did not respond to Lookout’s requests for comment, but city community relations specialist Susan Oki said that 38% of Pogonip residents accepted shelter in the city’s final Pogonip update in early August. That is about on par with the 31% of Benchlands residents who accepted shelter after the clearing of that area.

The Pogonip is still a place where many unhoused individuals call home.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Kramer said Housing Matters has continued to house more people year over year, and that in the past year, the nonprofit has seen the majority of its referrals from those leaving Pogonip and the Benchlands. He added that Housing Matters is housing 246 individuals right now, up from 173 last year — a figure Kramer says might be the most his organization has housed in a given year. However, he said there are still more people in need than services can keep up with — emphasizing the need for more robust homelessness prevention programs.

That can look like a number of different things.

Although Santa Cruz does have a rapid rehousing program that provides short-term rental assistance, and increased federal funding has come through for some county programs, Kramer said that it’s “not really enough to meet the need locally.” He points to some form of universal basic income or stipend for people who are on the brink of homelessness — programs he says there have been talks about piloting in Santa Cruz County — as a useful tool, because even small amounts of money can have a big impact on preventing homelessness.

“That can help with just basic things like helping them keep their car running, getting gas or paying repair bills so they can continue working,” he said. “There are a lot of different ways I think we can provide people with some financial support.”

Housing Santa Cruz County Executive Director Elaine Johnson also advocated for financial assistance, but first and foremost, she said salaries and wages need to increase.

“We have to bump them up. COVID has shown us that you can work from anywhere and still make really good money,” she said. “We’re at this point where people work two or three jobs and people are still struggling.”

Johnson explained that better wages could help solve one of the county’s biggest problems: food security.

“People really do have to make the choice between eating or paying their landlord,” she said. “Even if you have a place to live, but you’re going to bed hungry, that is no way to live.”

She applauded Second Harvest Food Bank’s consistent efforts to feed county residents in need, but said that alone cannot solve the problem. “A lot of people have shame about having to do that, to have a job and then go stand in that line,” Johnson said. “So they end up not doing that. ”

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

Knowing which services people need — and how many people need them — is vital to a robust response, too, which is why Kramer says he wants to see the county develop a list of every person experiencing homelessness. He said that while such “by-name” lists for veterans and families exist, a comprehensive list does not.

“That way you actually know everyone who is unhoused in your community by name, and have some contact information, and know how to count them,” Kramer said. “But that is a significant undertaking.”

But even without that list, Kramer said Santa Cruz County needs more low-barrier shelters for a number of demographics, including women, couples and families — ideally with day care services. In many shelters, people are separated by sex, and many do not have day care.

“I think day care services are really poor. There are folks in our family shelter that need to go out for a job interview but also need a day care service,” he said. “That’s really critical.”

Kramer added that shelters for people leaving incarceration should be a major priority, too. Often, people are released from jail and have no resources, money or housing options. Shelters that prioritize connecting formerly incarcerated individuals to necessary services would help allow them to reenter the community.

“I can predict that today, someone left our county jail unhoused without money in their pockets, without a place to go,” he said. “So our systems of care are exiting people into homelessness every day.”

But as much as the gaps in homelessness response still exist, Johnson said celebrating successes when they come makes space for more wins: “There are a lot of good things happening, and we don’t talk about them enough. I think you’re missing something so critical when you don’t acknowledge the things that are happening.”

Kramer added that staying informed about both the victories and the gaps creates a more engaged population, and one that can play a part in creating change.

“Maybe it’s saying yes to that project proposed in their neighborhood, taking the opportunity to engage with elected officials, or voting for a ballot initiative next year,” he said. “Everyone has a part to play as an ally or a supporter.”

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