Eight things you know about homelessness that are wrong

The Benchlands during September's clearing of the homeless encampment along the San Lorenzo River.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Housing advocate Don Lane has worked on issues of homelessness for three decades. Here, he addresses the eight misconceptions “we need to overcome to advance our community thinking about homelessness.” A former Santa Cruz mayor, Lane addresses the mental health argument, our community counting skills, the “send them back” stance and more.

I’ve been working on homelessness and low-income housing for more than 30 years, some professionally, but mostly as a volunteer. I’ve taught classes on these issues and written a fair amount, too.

Recently, both amid the storms and now as they have subsided, I have been thinking about how our unhoused have fared during this terrible Santa Cruz winter, and I’ve wondered about how those who used to live in the Benchlands encampment along the San Lorenzo River have managed.

I’ve heard agencies helped 12 of them find permanent housing. I also have heard of others who found and then lost housing or who had housing and then got evicted.

It’s a mixed bag of stories. The inspiring part is that individuals do get housed. What’s not inspiring is that such a modest percentage of those needing housing can get it and sustain it.

I started thinking about this more — about how to meaningfully portray the struggles of addressing homelessness in a way that provides hope, but also presents the difficulties of meeting the challenge.

I came up with eight key points — mostly misconceptions we need to overcome to advance our community thinking about homelessness.

Here is my list.

An unhoused man trying to stay dry under a bridge that overlooks the San Lorenzo River on Dec. 23, 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

1. We are forgetting to put people first

Too many people forget to view the unhoused as people first. Someone’s child. Someone’s sibling or parent. Someone who feels pain and joy and responds to simple kindness. Let’s please get over this tendency to think of a person living on the street as less than a full human being and as a creature not deserving of humane consideration. If someone close to you were struggling, would you reject them as undeserving of human kindness or would you try to be helpful and supportive?

2. Substance use and mental health are not the issue

There are lots of folks who insist homelessness is a substance use and/or mental health problem. However, we know this is incorrect. Many with mental health issues and/or substance use disorders remain stably housed. If people on the street were housed, their homelessness would end — but not their addiction or mental health problem.

Many communities (even outside California) have higher levels of substance use than Santa Cruz, and yet have much lower levels of unhoused people. That’s because those communities have much less expensive housing and, therefore, people with these challenges can still remain housed.

If an unhoused person with significant substance or mental health issues gets treatment, but remains without an ongoing place to live, that person will still be homeless. Again, only housing can end a person’s homelessness. Treatment is a good thing, but it is not a home.

3. Musical chairs

There is an ongoing temptation to insist, “They aren’t from here.” Much of this thinking leads to the idea of “send them back where they came from.”

This is pure misinformation — or just wishful thinking.

First, almost every county in coastal California has a significant number of unhoused people who came from another community. (Santa Cruz County has 11%, Monterey has 17%, San Francisco has 29%, Marin has 22%.)

Many have incorrectly concluded those on the front lines of homelessness are failing. At the risk of insulting some folks, this is a boneheaded view.

Of course, this means some people who’ve been displaced from Santa Cruz County (because of high housing costs or lack of available housing or some other crisis) are homeless in another community. So, Santa Cruz could bus some people away, but we would then have to take in other folks who would be bused back to us. We’d still have a high level of homelessness … just a different group, each still needing support and a place to live.

It’s worth noting that the “not from here” numbers are similar to the number of housed people not originally from here. Shuffling people around would be pointless, except in instances where a family welcomes an unhoused relative back.

Even if the concept of sending people “back” was sound, who would determine the return destination? Would an army “brat” be sent back to the town of the former army base of his parents? Would the former foster kid be sent back to all five of the different towns she lived in? Would it be based on place of birth or place of schooling or place where parent lives? What if there are no parents?

It would be virtually impossible to create a system for this that would be productive and makes sense.

Besides, let’s ask ourselves this: If an individual is in crisis here, what good does it do anyone to put them on a bus to another location?

4. It costs “so much money”

It’s common for folks to wonder why we aren’t making much progress on homelessness when our county spends millions of dollars each year to address it.

One answer is we really aren’t spending much money, considering the magnitude of the problem.

Let’s start by thinking about how much it costs a person to live on a shoestring budget here. California’s annual “cost of living” is estimated by the federal government at about $47,000 per year. Let’s imagine the shoestring amount is about half of that, about $23,000. Each person without a home still needs food, health care, clothing, personal items, transportation and maintenance of the place where they are sleeping (shelter management or encampment impact costs).

There are about 2,200 folks experiencing homelessness in our county. The arithmetic suggests that simply sustaining these people costs roughly about $50 million every year.

And then there are the costs of helping people search for housing or remain in newly acquired rental housing. Hundreds of unhoused people are searching for a rental of some kind at any given time and they have social workers and housing navigators helping them.

This is not cheap — we need to pay for staff and for initial rent assistance. Even in this difficult rental market, I estimate that about 500 people move from homelessness to rental housing each year. (Housing Matters alone housed more than 300 people in each of the past two years.) This costs millions more.

So on this front, the homeless response system is reasonably successful — it’s getting hundreds of people housed every year.

Of course, we then have to ask: Why are we not seeing a decrease in the number of unhoused people?

It’s math. If 500 people get housed in a given year, but 550 people lose their housing in that same period, homelessness increases. The rehousing part of the system is actually working, but the larger system of helping people remain housed is not.

One way to think about this is: There were about 2,000 unhoused people in our county in 2017. Since then, the response system has assisted 2,000 people find housing. If no one had become newly homeless since 2017, we’d have reduced homelessness to a low level.

5. The myth of systemic failure

Many have incorrectly concluded those on the front lines of homelessness are failing. At the risk of insulting some folks, this is a boneheaded view.

Do we blame doctors and nurses and technicians in the emergency room because so many need their services? Do we consider it their fault when emergency treatments don’t bring every patient back to excellent health?

The front-line homeless services providers are just like ER staff: They intervene in a bad situation and help stabilize.

RVs line a street on Santa Cruz's Westside
RVs line a street on Santa Cruz’s Westside.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Service providers are not responsible for high rents, the dearth of affordable rental housing, the opioid epidemic, a broken system for addressing severe mental health issues, and a system that doesn’t have housing for everyone. The service providers are doing a heck of a job considering the environment and system they work in.

Let’s stop scapegoating them.

6. “Too many services” for the unhoused

Some folks have proclaimed for years that Santa Cruz has an especially high level of services for people without homes and that this leads to a higher level of homelessness here.

There is absolutely no evidence of this.

Some of our services are particularly good, and we certainly have an array of services. But we have a low level of shelter beds — just 600 — for our unsheltered population of 2,200 or more. So we have 1,600 people who don’t have shelter available to them.

And we have scores of unhoused people who have a rent voucher who cannot find a place to live.

Clearly, short-term shelter (or legit campsites) and basic rental housing are the two most fundamental services people need, and we don’t have enough of either.

7. Seen and unseen

Many of us see people in tents or in the woods or pushing a cart full of belongings and consider this the face of homelessness. These people are important in the scope of homelessness, but they do not constitute the majority of unhoused people. Again, there are 600 folks (including dozens of children and dozens of survivors of domestic violence) in shelters.

There are hundreds living in vehicles. There are hundreds who do everything possible to remain invisible so they don’t have to interact with authorities. There are people couch surfing (or garage surfing). There are employed people sleeping at workplaces.

Every one of these individuals needs housing.

8. Homeless by choice?

A common refrain among many housed residents is that so many homeless people don’t want help.

Consider these two local stories: Johnny has been in a couple of shelters over the past two years. In one shelter, two valuable possessions were stolen from him while sleeping. In another, he slept in a bunk next to a guy who later turned out to have the flu. Johnny, who has a fairly significant chronic health issue, caught the flu and was hospitalized briefly.

Johnny has now decided that it’s better for him to remain unsheltered than to risk another shelter stay.

He might be considered unsheltered by choice, but he is not homeless by choice.

Thomas, 39, has been surviving on a mostly outdoor existence since age 15.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Marina is an alcoholic. (She started drinking heavily at 16, when her abusive father threw her out of the house for fighting back.) Marina has stayed in shelters before, but has had to leave for possessing alcohol. (The shelters did not offer any treatment options.) Marina would love to be housed, but where can she go?

These are typical unhoused stories.

Of course, some folks have chosen “the traveling life” — but they are by far the minority.

And many have shifted their thinking after 10 days of rain.

Just about everyone would like to have a safe, stable home with a bed of their own indoors. (For those who don’t agree with me: Let’s come close to housing all the folks seeking homes before we get hung up on the small number choosing to live outside the system.)

The real story of solutions to homelessness is counterintuitive to many of us.

There’s that commonly stated concern about homeless services that goes something like: “If you build it, they will come.” (See No. 6.) The line should be, “If you don’t build it, they will sleep outside or in their car.”

All we need to solve homelessness is for more people to stop believing things that aren’t true … and then build safe, healthy places to sleep and reside for people who are currently unhoused.

Don Lane has lived in Santa Cruz for 49 years, first as a UCSC student, then as the founder/owner of the Saturn Cafe, and then as a city councilmember and mayor. He currently serves in a volunteer capacity as chair of the governing board of Housing Santa Cruz County and vice chair of the board of Housing Matters. He also goes camping with his wife, teaches part time at UCSC, writes a blog about housing and homelessness issues, plays basketball with the Santa Cruz Geezers, and makes ice cream at home. Both his daughters grew up in Santa Cruz but have now moved away. His previous piece for Lookout, against Measure O, ran in July.

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