Unhoused Santa Cruz: Three universal truths about why this county remains among the capitals of homelessness
In this first part of a three-part Sunday series, Lookout digs into the questions surrounding homelessness in Santa Cruz County. First up, how has a beautiful place with a progressive and generous population become a statewide epicenter for the needy?
On a rainy January morning three years ago, more than 100 people blanketed the 607 square miles that span Santa Cruz County, seeking to count every single unsheltered — and temporarily sheltered — individual living in our midst.
The one-day “point-in-time count” is the method the federal government uses to measure and compare the depth of individual communities’ homelessness needs. On that day, more than a year before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, our county’s situation was among the most dire in the state.
Over the course of a five-and-a-half hour search that began at 4:30 a.m., the count tallied 2,167 people living on the edge of the margins of our community. Despite consensus among local experts that the number was an extreme undercount, it still gave Santa Cruz County the distinction of having the fourth-highest rate of unhoused humans in California, the state that most owns our country’s homelessness crisis.
California’s 161,548 homeless make it by far the state with the largest problem and the rate of the unsheltered population increased by 26% between 2007 and 2020. Only Humboldt, Mendocino and San Francisco counties had higher per-capita rates than Santa Cruz.
Just like it does for many of us, that data gives Dr. Robert Ratner, director of the county’s Housing for Health division, a moment of reflective pause. “Why,” Ratner wonders, “are these regions more likely to have a higher proportion of people experiencing homelessness than others?”
Of course, there is no single, definitive answer. It’s the eternal question for this beautiful place with a seemingly intractable problem: Why here?
While we aspire to be the little hamlet where ocean, redwoods and farmland meet a forward-thinking, compassionate populace, we can’t escape the ugly truth: We are among the U.S. capitals of homelessness.
And few in Santa Cruz County agree on why or how exactly to fix it. Clearly, it’s a tangled web of affordability and low-wage jobs, behavioral health and substance abuse mixed in with life’s everyday curveballs. And those effects have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
But they’ve also been hampered by longstanding problems that keep the siloed institutions working on the problem — government, nonprofits and volunteers — from rowing in the same direction and creating a centralized approach to solving the underlying issues that surround homelessness rather than just constantly triaging.
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That is among the issues outlined in a highly critical 84-page grand jury report from June 2020 titled “Homelessness: Big Problem, Little Progress”.
That pointed critique of the community’s inadequate response to the crisis generated little community engagement at the time. We’ll explore its findings in more depth in the coming weeks, and assess how county and city officials took those findings into their strategic planning.
Experts believe that the true number of individuals in need, those who have touched the system in some way — through one of the many community outreach programs, nonprofits or a shelter — is historically two to three times larger than the PIT count. They count the larger number by measuring the number of people who have sought homelessness services over an extended period; the PIT number is a visual estimation over a single 24-hour period.
While the PIT aims to count those camping in tents and vehicles, often scattered throughout this highly wooded area, critics say it misses a large populace of the “hidden homeless” who are couch surfing from house to house, living paycheck to paycheck, afraid of entering the system and on the fringes of homelessness.
There’s a lot of estimating going on.
— Former Santa Cruz mayor and homelessness advocate Don Lane
“I think that even the people that do [the PIT count] recognize its limitations,” former Santa Cruz mayor and homelessness advocate Don Lane said. “There’s a lot of estimating going on.”
In fact, the most current number for Santa Cruz County in the state database known as HMIS (Homeless Management Information System), shows that 5,899 people touched the system in the first six months of 2021 — nearly three times the PIT figure.
“It was clearly an undercount,” Ratner says of the PIT, while emphasizing that getting a better handle on who the people are in the HMIS system — their specific situations, needs, how to find them, their names — is much more valuable day to day. The PIT attempts to give the broader snapshot and is the catalyst for federal funding.
On Feb. 28, after its cancellation due to COVID a year ago, the PIT count will happen again. Along with a survey given to a percentage of those who are counted, it will help provide more clues than clarity about where things stand. But the count — the public will see the actual numbers in late spring — helps us begin to understand how severely this crisis has spiked and the amount of federal funding there will be to address it.
It’s the perfect moment for Lookout to dive into this Unhoused Santa Cruz crisis, attempting to build our own deeper well of understanding around countywide homelessness in 2022.
We start with a three-part series leading up to the Feb. 28 PIT count. Part 1 — what you’re reading now — examines the universal truths that plague Santa Cruz County. Next Sunday, we’ll look at the initiatives that give those on the frontlines of homelessness hope for 2022, and in Part 3, on the eve of the count, we will take a closer look at the importance and process of enumerating our unhoused citizens.
As those fortunate enough to call this beautiful place home — and not have to worry about where we will lay our heads at night — this topic deserves all of our full and undivided attention.
1. The system is broken — and everyone wants it fixed.
After a drawn-out process to create the county’s Housing For Health (H4H) division, Robert Ratner became the first person to direct the division in November 2020, focusing on unifying its homelessness efforts.
The reorganization had a clear purpose: fix what was clearly broken.
That was spelled out in many parts of the grand jury report, but Ratner also brought to the job his previous experience in similar roles in Alameda County, a much bigger and more entrenched area in terms of the issue’s complexities. Biggest among the challenges he saw here:
- Breaking the siloed walls among organizations all trying to solve the same issues.
- Creating a streamlined data system that is accessible and populated by all.
- Understanding the ways in which federal and state funding are secured.
- Changing the optics and false narratives that surround the local homeless population.
- Getting leaders from around the county to step up and be involved in solutions.
Ratner’s work has just begun, and so has this county’s in terms of righting the ship.
His taking on the role of a true “homelessness czar” — even if he and the county don’t like the term — was a clear recognition that someone needed to have their eye on the larger picture and process. To some observers it was a great beginning to a much longer game ahead.
The hiring of Dr. Ratner was a brilliant stroke.
— Community volunteer John Dietz
“The hiring of Dr. Ratner was a brilliant stroke,” said longtime community volunteer John Dietz, who works closely with landlords to get some of the most vulnerable people housed. But Dietz thinks it will take others with influence and dollars to stand up and help him in the long run.
“Dr. Ratner’s job is overwhelming,” he said. “There’s not an equivalent to him bringing the landlord groups together, the business people together, the enterprises together to commonly solve the problem. It’s like the county and the government are trying to take this whole thing on themselves.”
Dietz references the millions of dollars a place like San Francisco has received from billionaires such as Marc Benioff and Charles Schwab. “There really needs to be a champion of homelessness here, and we don’t have it,” he said.
Local officials and experts don’t attempt to paint a rosy picture of this county’s past strategic shortcomings. They recognize the H4H division and a countywide task force of key stakeholders that Ratner is forming behind it as a chance to build a system of accountability and collaboration that previously has not existed.
The group will include high-level government officials, elected and appointed, and Ratner says of the monthly meetings and two-year commitment involved: “We’ll have to orient all the new board members to get everybody up to speed so they can make informed decisions. This group will help make difficult decisions about limited resources and priorities.”
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And as the constant triage moments of the pandemic fade, recognition of quiet successes already in progress should rise, they believe: the number of affordable housing units in development countywide, the number of shelter beds added, the progress on housing veterans and families and additional funding and resources that have been made possible by programs such as the “Rehousing Wave.”
“Sometimes, it gets lost that so many of our community-based organizations have been doing phenomenal work in getting people housed for years,” said longtime county analyst Jessica Scheiner. “But I’m so excited about the direction we’re going and really being strategic and thoughtful about how we’re moving forward and also being transparent and honest.”
Tom Stagg, chief initiative officer at Housing Matters, said tidying up the data collection process is absolutely essential: “To be able to know what’s actually going on, it’s a motivator. To be able to say, ‘Look at the success.’”
2. Housing and affordability issues are at the heart of solving homelessness.
Our housing issues, as we all experience and see differently, touch many people, at different stages of life and across socio-economic levels: students, those moving here for employment, the young adults who grew up here and are wanting to stay. Living in one the nation’s costliest housing markets overall only exacerbates the homelessness issues.
By one state count, the city of Santa Cruz needs to build 3,400 more housing units to meet state requirements and the county must produce more than 10,000. Those are massive numbers that act as a twin pressure points in tackling homelessness.
So in some ways, everyone agrees with this simple idea. The need can be summed up in three words: housing, housing, housing.
Affordable housing, temporary housing, permanent supportive housing.
“We need to invest in longer-term solutions — affordable, very low-income housing — and investing in infrastructure, real estate acquisition,” Housing Matters CEO Phil Kramer said. “They may not alleviate the immediate need in the short term, but are the kind of capacity that we need in the mid-to-longer term.”
The unique thing about someone like Ratner is that he must be equal parts health policy expert and housing wonk. As such, it’s his job to look at the gap between availability and affordability. What he sees in this county is a gap so wide that it’s become what he terms a “fundamental stressor” for many — and a primary reason that people end up experiencing homelessness.
But he has quickly learned that getting people on the same page about how to handle such issues is more difficult than it should be.
In Santa Cruz County, there’s a strong sense that creating more housing is not what some people want.
— Robert Ratner
“In Santa Cruz County, there’s a strong sense that creating more housing is not what some people want,” he said. “It’s not always about building new high-rises, but maybe about finding new ways where people can share housing, increasing employment opportunities, and creating more mixed-use developments.”
Despite a push and pull between those who understand the county needs more housing stock and those resistant to growth, there has been a mini development boom, with more to come, since the state asserted itself with Senate Bill 35 to make it easier to force developments upon communities that have not kept up with the necessary housing development.
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With the state aggressively pushing cities and counties to make it easier to build, there’s opportunity for streamlining the process and creating more dense development. The list of countywide projects in progress, either going through respective cities’ planning departments or breaking ground on construction, continues to grow. In the city of Santa Cruz, there are 18 housing and mixed-use developments in the pipeline, with many including at least 10-15% affordable housing units.
Nonprofit developers MidPen Housing and Eden Housing are at work on multiple projects countywide, focusing on increasing the amount of 100% affordable units through multifamily and mixed-use projects.
But the backlog of those in need of housing is far outpacing an expansion of stock. In December 2018, the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Cruz closed the waitlist for the federal Section 8 vouchers, with executive director Jenny Panetta saying that there could be upward of 31,000 families eligible for federal rental assistance countywide. Currently, Panetta said, the disparity could be “even greater,” but there are no data sources to even estimate the true demand.
Monica Martinez, who leads the county’s largest behavioral health operations in Encompass Community Services, worries that housing stock simply can’t keep up with need. “We expect that there’s going to be more folks who have fallen into homelessness during the pandemic,” she said, “and we need to make sure that we have the capacity to serve those individuals now.”
Locally, that’s led to a stronger push by county, city and nonprofit agencies to focus on permanent supportive housing. Housing Matters set a new ambitious standard with the proposed Harvey West Studios, on which it hopes to break ground later this year. The project’s 120 units would be used mainly to serve the chronically unhoused — typically those with severe physical and mental health challenges who need 24/7 support.
It would become the largest permanent supportive housing project ever built in the county, and some of the key funding came via donors such as Apple and Jeff Bezos’ Day One Fund. Others like Encompass, led by Martinez, who learned about permanent supportive housing models — which combine low-barrier affordable housing, health care, and supportive services — working on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, have set goals to create more of those housing opportunities for their clients, especially in South County.
One big win in November came via local financing for “Veterans Village,” a 6-acre property in Ben Lomond with plans to house up to 40 homeless individuals.
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While that’s all great progress, County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty — who represents the majority of Santa Cruz city, which counts more than half of the county’s homeless population — said the costs associated with building enough housing units add pressure.
“We’re not going to build our way out of this problem,” he said. “The costs of building, and providing all the housing in this community, will mean that we will continue to have people living on the streets and suffering. We need to build hundreds of shelter beds, permanent supportive housing, and affordable housing for this community …
“But we also need to recognize that we cannot solve this crisis in a city of 60,000 people — we cannot solve a national crisis.”
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3. Santa Cruzans don’t agree on the solutions to homelessness.
What else holds back progress on the issue? The longtime tug of war between the city of Santa Cruz and the county, sometimes in strategy and sometimes in short-term vs. long-term funding priorities.
Another is simply a mutual understanding of the issues that surround homelessness among citizens and their elected leaders.
The city of Santa Cruz bears the largest brunt day to day, which can include encampments, overnight RV parking, fire hazards and an ever-changing slate of legal enforcements. Santa Cruz’s new city manager will unveil the latest plan to try to smooth out the ongoing bumps in March.
Meanwhile, the county — which includes the Housing Authority — is charged with the larger oversight and strategy. The county works closely with groups like Housing Matters on solutions that range from finding someone temporary shelter, working with landlords and locating open market housing for clients ready for permanent housing.
Regardless of the work being done by the city or county, there is a sense from leaders of both that they don’t have public buy-in, largely because people don’t agree on the best ways to solve homelessness and are frustrated that progress isn’t being made.
Ratner cites this example: the belief that people who are unsheltered and suffering with mental health issues need services before they need shelter. “That is incredibly difficult,” he said. “My experience being a health care person and being in a behavioral health system is that people need that stability for the treatment to really be effective.”
Coonerty, the Third District supervisor, a two-time former Santa Cruz mayor and a lifelong Santa Cruzan, doesn’t hide his frustration about the community’s polarization on homelessness.
You have some people who say, ‘We just need more resources, and we can solve this issue.’ You have other folks who say, ‘Cut off all the resources, and it will all go away.’ Both sides are delusional.
— Supervisor Ryan Coonerty
“This community is engaged in a lot of magical thinking about homelessness, on both sides,” he said. “You have some people who say, ‘We just need more resources, and we can solve this issue.’ You have other folks who say, ‘Cut off all the resources, and it will all go away.’ Both sides are delusional.”
The so-called criminalization of the unhoused and what Ratner calls “othering” — “I hear the term ‘local’ thrown around here a lot,” he said — is what gives officials the most pause when trying to get everyone on the same page.
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Results of the 2019 PIT count survey that showed 74% of the unhoused said they had been county residents before falling into homelessness, mirrored what experts say is about the nationwide average. Larry Imwalle, the city of Santa Cruz’s newly appointed homelessness response manager, has found it surprising to learn about one of the area’s most long-held, yet unsupported, pieces of mythology: People come here to be homeless.
“I’ve heard from a lot of circles that this area is attracting homelessness,” he said. “But the data just doesn’t back that up.”
Former mayor and longtime homelessness advocate Don Lane worries that people don’t want to know all the complexities that surround the issue of homelessness. They just want it to go away.
“If people are making incorrect assumptions, or just dehumanizing assumptions,” he said, “they become excuses for not doing anything.”
Ratner points out that there is a reason Santa Cruzans, and Californians in general, might react more fearfully to homelessness than in other states: More of people’s wealth is wrapped up in their property. “There’s a question about how wealth gets shared, and it’s fundamentally part of the issue.”
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Coonerty — whose district includes the densest areas of the homeless population — sees nothing wrong with giving options to the unhoused who are not tied to the area.
“We need to help them get back to where they have resources, family, friends … they were not connected to this community when they became unhoused, and the best thing we can do is to help them immediately get to where they have connections,” he said. “We have to help them reattach, reconnect with families, friends, move to places where there is an opportunity to move out of poverty and where the jobs-housing balance is more available.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 next Sunday. And please send us your questions and comments so we can incorporate them into our further reporting on this important topic: firstname.lastname@example.org.