Third District Santa Cruz County Supervisor hopefuls Justin Cummings and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson sparred gently at Thursday evening’s candidate debate hosted by Lookout at the Hotel Paradox. How to help the unhoused, and in what ways, was the top issue that separated the two Santa Cruz City Council members.
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The dividing lines between Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Justin Cummings remained subtle after Thursday night’s cordial debate over the key issues facing District 3 in a forum hosted by Lookout at the Hotel Paradox.
But key nuances between the two strong Santa Cruz County Supervisor candidates vying to succeed 16 years of Coonerty Rule in the Santa Cruz-North Coast-Bonny Doon region — eight from father Neal, followed by eight from son Ryan — continued to further reveal themselves via the conversation led by Lookout’s Jody K. Biehl.
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The most notable nuances came from the No. 1 issue facing District 3: homelessness.
Kalantari-Johnson made it clear she is not worried just about continuing what she views as a woeful trend of inaction on the issue. She’s worried about the apathy she believes has overtaken the electorate when it comes to the 2,299 living outdoors in this community.
“I’m afraid Santa Cruz has lost its compassion because we’ve been inactive for so long,” she said. “And that’s not acceptable.”
Her most passionate plea of the 50-minute session was spawned by Cummings’ criticism of actions taken by the Santa Cruz City Council they both sit on — Cummings often part of the 5-2 voting minority along with Sandy Brown — without what he believes to be adequate community discourse and buy-in.
He cited the outrage spawned by initiatives like the temporary outdoor living ordinance (TOLO) in 2021 by the current council and the rollback of enforcement on an overnight parking ban on the far Westside along Delaware Avenue in 2019 by the previous council.
“People lost their minds,” he said. “Why? Because no one went to those communities and spoke to them first.”
Cummings followed with an example of how he attempts to govern differently and provide the transparency he believes is lacking in how the city council often does business. When the Armory at DeLaveaga Park was initially tabbed as a potential emergency homeless shelter location in 2020, he was part of the group that called a neighborhood meeting in Prospect Heights.
“We went to the community, we sat down, got a meeting with the neighbors and heard their concerns,” he said. “We listened to them and we made sure that those concerns were addressed. Since then, we haven’t had a single complaint from those neighbors.”
Kalantari-Johnson’s reply was blunt: “We have used the crutch of community engagement to not make decisions. We have been talking about this issue for a long time.”
She said the pace of progress on homelessness is the single biggest complaint she hears as she knocks on random doors across the district.
“When I knock on doors, people are losing their minds that nothing has been done,” she said.
And she said she believes progress is finally being made thanks to recent moves by the city and county, and that people are taking note.
“No one was losing their mind when we stood up a transitional shelter that has safely housed 150 people,” she said. “No one’s losing their mind when we have a safe parking program that currently is housing 25 or 30 vehicles.”
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Both said they believe the attempt to get those among the chronic homeless population into services is essential. Where they slightly deviated is on how homogeneously the homeless population should be viewed.
While Cummings didn’t go nearly as far as mayoral candidate Joy Schendledecker in the following debate, he did say there are human-liberty considerations to be made.
“There are people in this community who are homeless and who are not having any impact on our environment,” he said. “I think what this comes down to is behavior. If people are negatively impacting our communities, we have to do something about it.”
Cummings amplified that belief later saying that: “We need treat housed and unhoused people the same way.”
“If someone’s homeless and living in their car because they can’t afford to live here, but they’re not having a negative impact, then why are we bothering that person?” he said. “If we can connect them to services, great. But we need to have those services and structures in place to give them support they need for the circumstances they’re in.”
Biehl asked the two whether they generally agreed on the topic and Kalantari-Johnson quipped, “You’re trying to get us going, aren’t you?”
Kalantari-Johnson, whose social work and grant-writing career has put her in the crosshairs of getting proper funding for mental health and addiction services, believes strongly that a healthy community with healthy neighborhoods is not one where people are living in parks and vehicles.
“My approach has been not to shy away from making hard decisions. This is no silver-bullet solution but we cannot stand idle,” she said. “This problem has grown to the extent that it has because we have (stood idle) for too long.”
She added: “We’ve blamed each other, and we’ve said we don’t have enough and this narrative of ‘it’s not enough and it’s not my responsibility.’ It’s all of our responsibility. So yes, my approach has been different.”