Quick Take:

Santa Cruz County-run programs at the Oceana Inn and the National Guard Armory will close their doors by the end of this month, amounting to a net loss of 252 of the county’s 638 total shelter beds. Says county Housing for Health director Robert Ratner, “We have to stop taking our money and investing it in one-time-only things; we have to corral the limited money we have invested in a strategic way.”

As COVID-19 funds continue to run out, Santa Cruz County’s homeless services and sheltering options are changing — and there’s a lot of uncertainty as to what’s to come.

By the end of June, the county will have closed 252 COVID-funded and one-time-funded shelter beds, including the last county-run Project Roomkey hotel — the Oceana Inn on Water Street near downtown Santa Cruz — and the Salvation Army shelter at the Armory in DeLaveaga Park. The programs have significantly reduced their shelter capacity over time, with residents permanently housed or moved to other locations, and the remaining residents number between 70 and 80 guests.

The Oceana Inn is the sixth and final open location of the Project Roomkey program, the county’s largest sheltering program, which began operations in the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will officially close its doors Friday.

The National Guard Armory program has been run by the county since the start of the pandemic as well, and is set to shutter next Monday, June 27.

With these two closures, the county’s Housing for Health director, Robert Ratner, estimates a 40% loss of shelter beds countywide. As of October 2021, the county operated 638 beds in Santa Cruz, Live Oak, Watsonville and Royal Oaks; once the final shelter beds cease operations at the end of June, the county will have 386 remaining beds.

As reported by Lookout, the county says the program participants work with case managers to assess next steps, whether that be in another shelter capacity or in moving to voucher-based units. A new city-run program, called the Armory City Overlook, will be using the Armory space, but city spokesperson Elizabeth Smith said the county and city have not worked together to give priority to those currently remaining in shelters.

The Armory closure and changes

As Ratner described, the county-run Armory program has been extended to operate year-round. Beginning as a program for winter shelter before the start of the pandemic, it aimed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among the unhoused. The program was one of three that operated at the National Guard Armory site, and was one of the more expensive programs for the county to operate, with the county buying and leasing generators, a portable office space, transportation services and extra bathrooms and showers.

Those costs amounted to approximately $130-$150 per person per night, with the program sheltering 130 people at its peak.

Robert Ratner
Robert Ratner, the county director of Housing for Health. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“It was never developed as a shelter — when you use a facility or an outdoor park that’s not equipped for things that people would have when they’re sleeping, it really ramps up the cost,” Ratner said.

Ratner says the city of Santa Cruz and the county came to an agreement that the county would stop funding shelter operations at the Armory, with a focus on devoting resources to more intensive services elsewhere: “We’re really focused on helping people exit to permanent housing.”

Yet for the remaining 70 to 80 individuals at both the Oceana Inn and the Armory, the county will likely be unable to find permanent housing or shelter in advance of the closures. As Leslie Goodfriend, senior health services manager with the county’s health services department, told Lookout in advance of the Rodeway Inn closure last month, participants would receive backpacks, tents and sleeping bags if they are not able to be placed.

Next steps for the Armory

Looking forward, the Armory program closure will overlap with another shelter program offered by the city of Santa Cruz: a 65-bed shelter at the Armory campus, with 10 additional emergency overnight beds. The program is an outdoor encampment in DeLaveaga Park, on the Armory’s south lawn.

The city contracted with the Salvation Army at the end of March, Homelessness Response Manager Larry Imwalle told Lookout. The Armory City Overlook program has been in the process of launching over the past few weeks.

Santa Cruz city homelessness manager Larry Imwalle.
Santa Cruz city homelessness manager Larry Imwalle. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“We’ve been engaging people, principally in the benchlands area, to let them know of the program opening, see if they are interested, and develop a list of participants,” he said.

The Salvation Army will fully staff and support the program with transportation, meals and monitors. Imwalle said the city is also eyeing the adjacent space the county program will exit on June 27, with a goal to create an indoor shelter program with at least 60 beds.

“We haven’t made final decisions, we’re looking at resources,” he said. “That’s certainly a location where we’ve got the potential to expand shelter capacity with what we’re trying to do as part of our commitment to get to at least one.”

More opportunities on the way

While the shelter closures might look disconcerting to community members and homeless advocates, Ratner says there are two main reasons closing the shelters is an important next step.

“As a community, we have not established locations where we’re deeply committed to building out the facility, and we have not resourced the kinds of services to get people on the path to permanent housing,” he said. “We have to stop taking our money and investing it in one-time-only things; we have to corral the limited money we have invested in a strategic way.”

State and county officials
State and county officials gathered Friday to announce a $10.7 million award toward more Project Homekey units. The funding will go toward 36 units on Park Avenue in Soquel. Credit: Grace Stetson / Lookout Santa Cruz

Those investments are already on the horizon. On Friday, state and county officials gathered at Veterans Village in Ben Lomond to discuss new funding toward homelessness response in Santa Cruz County.

At the event, Lourdes M. Castro Ramirez, secretary of the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, announced that Santa Cruz County has been granted an additional $10.7 million to create 36 new Project Homekey homes for individuals exiting homelessness, based on Park Avenue in Soquel. The award adds to the April award of $6 million, which will create 20 additional homes at Veterans Village.

“We know that a stable home is foundational to the success of young people. And providing stable homes and connections to services requires decisive action from our local partners, like the partners that have joined us here today,” Ramirez said, acknowledging the efforts of Ratner, County Supervisor Manu Koenig and developer Iman Novin.

The county's Housing for Health director Robert Ratner at podium
The county’s Housing for Health director, Robert Ratner, explains the importance of investing in long-term infrastructure: “We’re really focused on helping people exit to permanent housing.” Credit: Grace Stetson / Lookout Santa Cruz

Based on data in the Homeless Management Information System — a secure online database to input information on homelessness services countywide — Ratner said Santa Cruz County still has a long way to go in getting people permanently housed. The county’s goal is 40% rehousing to permanent housing, with current rates between 5 and 15%.

“We know it’s possible, and we know what it takes, but we have to resource and scale to repeat what we know would work,” he said.

UPDATE: This story has been updated with details about the Armory City Overlook program.

Grace comes to Lookout from just over the hill, originally from Sunnyvale but with a variety of journalism experience from across the country.After doing her undergrad at Seattle University, Grace earned...