Santa Cruz city homelessness manager Larry Imwalle.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘There needs to be collective ownership’: City’s new homelessness point person on work, solutions

Santa Cruz officials named Larry Imwalle the city’s new homelessness response manager Oct. 5. As he get into the job, he spoke to Lookout about what he thinks needs to be done to address the issue at both the government and community levels.

Larry Imwalle knows that what he’s learned about Santa Cruz’s homelessness crisis just scratches the surface — but to be fair, he’s been here only a little more than a week.

On Oct. 5, he became the city’s homelessness response manager, a role first filled by Brooke Newman in 2020. In the time since Newman left the position after only a four-month tenure, the city has mostly focused on helping people connect with county services.

With Imwalle stepping into the role — only the second person to inhabit it — the city council has to assess what the Salinas resident, with a background in strategic and data-driven nonprofit work, can best do to address the issue.

He will be working under Deputy City Manager Lee Butler, who introduced Imwalle to the city council during its meeting Tuesday. Imwalle’s first task will be to develop a plan for safe sleeping and storage sites and provide his recommendations to the council on Nov. 9.

Imwalle was previously executive director of the Action Council of Monterey County, a job he held for 14 years. He said he “is getting oriented, learning, and trying to understand the council’s priorities.”

Though Santa Cruz has about 25% of the county’s population, it has more than half of the total homeless population, according to a 2019 survey. Still, Imwalle said the city’s homelessness concerns stem from a larger issue.

“Santa Cruz has a significant problem, but it’s a significant challenge across the state,” he said. “One of the key drivers is a lack of affordable housing, and not a lot of housing options for people who are low- and very-low-income.”

In his nonprofit work, Imwalle joined with public agencies, other nonprofits and community members to solve specific problems — launching more than 40 community-driven projects. He said he wants to continue that collaborative role in his city work.

“There needs to be collective ownership of this problem — we need to focus on the opportunity to work together in tandem, given the respective roles and responsibilities of each jurisdiction, to really try to have an impact,” he said.

Imwalle will also work with his Santa Cruz County counterpart, Robert Ratner, helping to coordinate county services for mental health and substance abuse for those in the city who need it. Still, Imwalle sees his role revolving around one thing: working with the city council to determine safe sleeping and storage programs, which could lead to more permanent solutions.

“Really, the goal is to establish the pipeline to get people connected with housing,” Imwalle said. “Again, I think that’s really critical of working with our county partners and other nonprofits and trying to make sure there are sufficient services.”

In June, the city received $14 million from the state of California to address homelessness; Imwalle and the city are working with state officials on how best to use it.

“The scope of this problem will always exceed the funding and capacity of this funding available,” he said. “It requires a systems-level approach to make this all happen.”

Though he’s just starting, Imwalle has already focused on understanding the “landscape in respect to homelessness in the community,” touring various encampments and understanding more in relation to the specific issues, including housing instability for UC Santa Cruz students.

“I really want to meet with all the stakeholders and develop those relationships,” he said. “I want to get those different perspectives and see who’s involved here and working on this issue, and playing a role to help have an impact on this issue.”

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story misstated how long Brooke Newman served as the city’s homelessness program manager; it was for four months.