Unhoused Santa Cruz: The struggle for families is real — and for one family, tragedy followed triumph
The number of families experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz County continues to increase despite the efforts by local leaders to prioritize them. Lookout learned that the number hit a two-year high in January after spiking by 27% over the past six months. One family saw the hard work needed to get rehoused finally pay off. During their day of celebration, tragedy struck.
The 17-foot trailer that kept Leticia Sandoval and her family safe from the elements during their period of homelessness remains visible looking down from the window of the bright, shiny, second-story two-bedroom unit they live in on a quiet street in north Watsonville.
So, too, is a small shrine to Adrian, Leticia’s eldest son. He was gravely injured just four days after the family moved into the new apartment last June, in an accident that occurred during a dual housewarming/birthday party for his family and his youngest sister. He and his older sister, Marina, were on their own by that point, and the party was to be a testament to how far all five — Leticia and her four kids — had come.
The helmet Adrian wore on the motorcycle ride across town to drop off the bike and help pick up Mirella’s 17th birthday cake — a ride that ended with him pinned beneath a car, suffering from injuries that left him in critical condition and in a coma for four days — was originally the centerpiece of the shrine honoring his life lost at just 29 years old. Now the wood cross is flanked by a pair of his old motorcycle gloves.
It’s true that no two stories about homelessness are the same — and it’s incomprehensible to imagine one with a crueler twist than the Sandovals’ story. Just as Leticia and her two youngest — who had struggled against the forces of homelessness for nearly two years — found shelter, their celebration morphed into an unthinkable tragedy, well beyond anything they experienced while unhoused.
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Leticia Sandoval, 49 and a proud Watsonville native, agreed to tell this story not because she wants sympathy for the loss of her son, but because she wants to share the hard-fought, yet ultimately successful, journey that came before it. She wants other families with children to know about the resources that exist, the hope that is worth embracing, and the tenacity to make the extra calls that need to be made.
As Santa Cruz County continues in its own increasingly visible struggle — trying to sort out long-term solutions to its conjoined affordability and homelessness crisis — the county government and its partner agencies have made a new priority of focusing first on unhoused families. That’s a subset of homelessness — roughly 30% of the total homeless population — that disproportionately affects women. Are enough families in need now getting the kind of help that Leticia Sandoval did?
The numbers say no, that even with more resources allocated — namely a five-year $2.5 million grant won by Housing Matters specifically for solving family homelessness — the forces of the pandemic and related pressures have only increased the numbers of unhoused families.
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Calling it a “moral imperative,” supervisors Ryan Coonerty and Bruce McPherson set in motion a plan one year ago to house every family by the end of 2021. As that December deadline passed quietly, the number of unhoused families in Santa Cruz County has instead headed toward a two-year high, a Lookout investigation learned. It marked a troubling six-month trend in which the number of unhoused families increased by 27%.
“I’m concerned it reflects the beginning of widespread challenges related to the pandemic,” Robert Ratner, director of Housing For Health, said.
The problem appears to be particularly dire in South County, where more than 2,800 students recently declared their family was in a state of homelessness. Community leaders there say that people are stretching themselves more than ever to meet basic needs. “Bundling,” multiple households sharing shelter, has become far more prevalent.
This county, where the average 2-bedroom rental is nearly $3,000, and it takes a $58/hour wage to support that payment, isn’t alone: According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2020 was the first year in a decade that family homelessness didn’t decrease. And the root causes of family homelessness — poverty, job instability, domestic abuse — have only been worsened by the pandemic.
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It’s those challenges — and this community’s struggle to make family homelessness a priority — that form the impetus for this, Part 2 of our Unhoused Santa Cruz series.
Presented with the stark numbers Saturday, Coonerty, whose 3rd District jurisdiction makes up a majority of the county’s homeless population, said he had a sense things were headed backward rather than forward with family homelessness, but hadn’t seen the actual data. He said he was highly disappointed to learn the reality.
“It’s enormously frustrating, and frankly unacceptable, for local kids to be homeless in our community,” he said. “We need to put them at the front of the line. We’ve got to do better.”
The Sandoval family has settled back into the housed world with much gratitude and a grieving process that is far from over. But Leticia, who gave birth to Adrian and his older sister Marina when she herself was a teenager, can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be without a roof over her family’s heads.
It was Leticia’s eldest son — who gave her two of the five grandchildren who bring her new home to life — who remained her most spirited cheerleader throughout the many moments of doubt.
“Adrian was a character — and he was the one always pushing me, saying, ‘Mom, you gotta find a place…Mom, have you found a place yet?’” she said, with a teary-eyed smile.
Then she remembered one of the many reasons she finds solace in this new home that has given her family hope for the future.
“His last memory was with us here…laughing,” she said, looking around the airy, newly renovated unit. “Him knowing we were going to be okay. We weren’t homeless anymore.”
The path to homelessness
Leticia, who had worked as an insurance broker while her husband of 20 years was employed as a correctional officer, knew her second marriage wasn’t going well when, she says, his abusive behavior began to affect her housing security.
“He had a problem with alcohol and anger and was always getting into fights with landlords and property managers,” she said. It was a domestic abuse incident that got her husband arrested, she said, and it’s what ended their ability to stay in a low-income housing situation in Watsonville.
When, at the end of 2019, she and her kids still living with her — 20-year-old Jared and then 15-year-old Mirella — packed up the little they could fit into their silver Chevy Malibu and set out on their own, they entered an unknown future that would take them through multiple phases.
The first was living with family, but Leticia said her mom was dealing with her own housing instability, as were her many aunts, uncles and cousins. Marina and Adrian both had young children and were working through their own pandemic-surged relationship challenges. It quickly became clear that three people bundling in with others, couch surfing, would only be a short-term solution.
Next, they tried living in area hotels via short-term vouchers procured through CalWorks. But the problems with that quickly led Leticia to question her own parenting: “There were prostitutes living in the room next to us, drugs deals going down outside. I felt like a horrible mom for having my children in that environment.”
There were prostitutes living in the room next to us, drugs deals going down outside. I felt like a horrible mom for having my children in that environment.
— Leticia Sandoval
It was as Leticia was working through the divorce settlement that she figured out her family’s next housing move: She wanted the 17-foot trailer that the couple had purchased to celebrate her birthday one year, to get them out in nature together on camping trips.
Only one problem: That Chevy Malibu couldn’t pull it. So Leticia relied on others who had trucks — often Adrian — to help her get it to places she could park it for stretches: the driveways of family and friends; empty parking lots; and eventually Pinto Lake County Park, where she learned she could safely keep her family for pleasant 14-day stretches at a time.
While there were incredible challenges packing three humans along with a dog, into a small trailer that had no water, no toilet and no privacy, the small victories often loomed large.
“It was beautiful and peaceful at Pinto Lake,” Leticia said, while listing the stresses and seeming dangers that seemed to constantly lurk elsewhere.
“I learned to fish,” said Jared, now 22, adding that there was also a flipside to the situation.
“It was pretty small in there, especially with the dog,” he said. “There was only this thin piece of cloth dividing us. It’s easy to think ‘What am I doing out here?’ You can lose hope real fast out there living in a trailer.”
As she continued to figure out the strategic paths to unhoused survival, Leticia was able to get a free wireless hotspot so Mirella could do her high school work, and she could continue a program to complete her certification as a medical receptionist, the career change she’d wanted to pursue for years. She now works for Doctors On Duty.
It’s easy to think ‘What am I doing out here?’ You can lose hope real fast out there living in a trailer.
— Jared Sandoval
Leticia recalls how Adrian — who was doing construction with an eye toward becoming a general contractor — would come over with his truck and help move the trailer, bring them necessities and check in on the family he was highly protective of.
“He was always asking, ‘What can I do for you, Mom? What do you need?” she said. “He was a great kid.”
‘People get lost in the system’
It took several years of trying to figure out the system of homelessness before Leticia Sandoval found the program that would be her family’s saving grace. It’s most commonly referred to as CHAMP (CalWorks Housing Assistance Move-in Program), and it’s geared to help push single moms with children up the list for services.
But Leticia is not surprised that others are struggling to find the same success. Her key: Complete and total persistence — often punctuated with tears.
“I’d call on Monday, and if I didn’t hear back by Wednesday, I was back on the phone,” she said.
I’d call on Monday, and if I didn’t hear back by Wednesday, I was back on the phone.
— Leticia Sandoval
Even with the push for family prioritization, Leticia said there were constant walls thrown up. She made too much money for certain programs, based only, she said, on the fact she had a car payment. Her son was over 18, so he couldn’t enter the same shelter program as his mom and sister. Plus, most programs, she said, had a waitlist of at least a year.
“They’re asking for a 600 credit score. And I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t have that. I’m, you know, struggling,” she said. “I just left a marriage with nothing but the clothes on my back and what was in my pocket.”
Sandoval said she had been on the county’s Section 8 housing waitlist for a decade with no indication about how she could move up and receive what is now known as a Housing Choice Voucher — financial assistance for low-income families or individuals. She thinks being on that list — which has now been closed for three years, was key.
She credits county social worker Lisette Gonzalez for connecting her with case manager Ellen Davidson, who works for CHAMP via Housing Matters and helped get a housing voucher into Leticia’s hands quickly.
“People get lost in the system,” Davidson said. “They’re not aware of some of these programs, and they’re often impatient. But she didn’t give up, she was persistent. She was truly able to provide for her children and make this happen.”
Securing a voucher is just the first step, however. Davidson considers her real job being a housing counselor. She teaches her clients how to woo a landlord, from filling out applications, to writing letters of explanation for things like poor credit and spotty rental history, to walking through what a successful interview will look like.
“My job is to get them to a place where they can be self-sufficient,” Davidson said. “Going out and looking for housing is really about a lot of rejection. You just have to keep on going and not take it personally.”
It took Leticia three tries before finding a landlord willing to rent to her family and, Davidson admits, “It’s hard to find landlords willing to accept Section 8, but they’re out there. These people hadn’t rented before and weren’t familiar with Section 8. But once you explain to them the situation and make the personal connection, many are willing.”
Leticia said she hopes to excel in her new career, help her kids find their own career paths, and be able to say this isn’t where their housing success story ends. Even though the expense is so much greater than other areas, she wants to remain in Watsonville. It’s home.
“I want to be able to get off Section 8, to give someone else a chance to have that support they need,” she said, adding that people need awareness that the resources do exist. “People don’t know what’s out there. I didn’t.”
A concering trendline
Giving priority to homeless families, conventional wisdom would hold, should be easier than housing chronically homeless individuals, many suffering from substance abuse and mental health issues.
But the pandemic has done that mission no favors, particularly given the combination of rising rents and an unstable job market.
“The rental market just keeps increasing and wages aren’t,” said CHAMP program manager Fabrizio Velazquez. “A lot of people are just living paycheck to paycheck. And then prices keep going up, and kids are an added expense.”
A lot of people are just living paycheck to paycheck. And then prices keep going up.
— Fabrizio Velazquez
At the county level, Ratner and Jessica Scheiner, the County’s primary analyst for family homelessness, watched a relatively flat stretch for the number of families in need locally spike late last summer.
It was a trendline that continued to creep up from August into the new year. In January, the number of unhoused families in the HMIS (Homeless Management Information System) had hit a two-year high and increased by 27% over that six-month span.
Scheiner said it’s a troubling trend, whose causes the County hasn’t yet pinpointed.
“It was a bit too early for the end of the eviction moratorium to be the cause of the initial spike, but likely had an impact later on. I can’t think of any programs that ended during that period that would have had that impact,” she said. “We are going to continue to dig into the data and talk with partner agencies to try to better understand what is going on.”
Ratner believes that the aftereffects of the brief COVID-19 bailout might be driving the increase.
“The one-time federal and state resources made available to buttress struggling people and families is coming to an end, but their overall baseline situations have not improved and likely worsened from before the pandemic,” he said, likening it to what resulted from the subprime mortgage crisis of the late 2000s.
They warn there are two other data points that add to the concern: The 3,369 applications from Santa Cruz County households for COVID-19 relief funds, and the 3,821 students — pre-K through high school — who declared themselves in different states of homelessness in a 2020/21 survey.
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Erica Padilla-Chavez, the CEO of Pajaro Valley Prevention & Student Assistance (PVPSA), said the pandemic effects necessitated that her agency “reengineer itself” into an all-encompassing family support system. They created a food pantry, a financial assistance program and provided legal support for families facing eviction.
She said they saw the biggest crush late in 2021, mirroring the numbers popping up on the HMIS dashboard. “We were hearing a lot of ‘I have no money, I have no food,’” she said. “People fearing that an eviction notice was going to be imminent.”
Putting a number on the homeless population is far more art than science, as those preparing for the upcoming point-in-time count on Feb. 28 will attest. And keeping track of the families that are homeless in the county can be more challenging than keeping track of the majority of homeless, who are individual adults.
While the list of families is smaller, they are more difficult to track as they bounce among temporary shelters of one kind or another. Further, as Velazquez points out, they are often reluctant to come forward because “they’re afraid they might lose their children because they’ve fallen into homelessness.”
Housing Matters family outreach worker William Karp spends his days on the hunt for families in need. He comes bearing gifts — new socks, hygiene kits, toys, snacks — and a business card. His job is to get people to sit down with him and discuss programs that might be available to them and then help them set up a meeting with a case manager.
One of the biggest wins for Karp: Helping convince families with undocumented adults that there are resources for them that they can trust.
As PVPSA and other community organizations like the Community Action Board and Families in Transition continue to triage the problems in South County, Padilla-Chavez thinks about the structural issues at play.
“It’s so complicated, you can’t snap your fingers and fix it overnight,” she said. “We don’t have enough housing because the cost of living in this region is among the most expensive. You don’t have jobs that pay a commensurate wage for the cost. You add COVID to all that and areas like Watsonville that have been disproportionately impacted…it’s a formula for what the data is showing.”
Like it does elsewhere up and down the coast of California, it leaves county leadership largely at a loss. They know the system is broken and that thus far attempts to fix it are mostly failing. There are serious challenges to waving a magic wand over this subset of the population — homeless families — and expecting change.
We are a small community trying to address huge economic forces.
— Ryan Coonerty
“We are a small community trying to address huge economic forces,” Coonerty said. “We have extremely limited resources and it’s hard to successfully prioritize unhoused families when they are less visible than those who we see in our parks, neighborhoods and emergency rooms. Neither of those reasons should let us off the hook.”
‘We’re going to be fine’
Leticia Sandoval knows she is one of the lucky ones who had the means and grit to navigate the system and find her family housing. She worries about so many others she knows who aren’t getting the same help, including her own sister: “People need to know there are these services — you just can’t give up,” she said.
She thinks about the long line of strong women she comes from and gives thanks. She thinks about how every day she remains an example of strength for her family by setting goals and working hard toward them, it will pay off.
While she had to delay her own medical clerk school graduation briefly after the death of Adrian because “my teachers understood there were days I couldn’t get out of bed,” she not only graduated but had already gotten a job and begun working before graduation.
It clearly hasn’t gone unnoticed in the Sandoval household.
“My mom has worked so hard for us,” Jared said, before joining his sister and friends in raiding the family fridge.
Leticia is thankful that beyond the housing services she both worked hard for and lucked into thanks to the guidance of those such as Gonzalez and Davidson, she also found grief counseling via the Community Action Board. She knows the tears aren’t likely to subside anytime soon, and that they shouldn’t.
She’ll never forget the conversation she had at Adrian’s bedside as he lay there in a coma, four days after the horrific crash.
Before making the decision to take him off life support and send him into the next world, she wanted him to know that he had done everything in his power to help his mom get her family back to shelter. He had been her strength.
And she would be forever grateful.
“I told him we’re going to be fine,” she said. “Go ahead and go.”