Closer to Home?

Santa Cruz Good Times
Closer to Home
By Patrick Dwire


A close look at ambitious goals to end chronic homelessness regionally

[Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part story about homelessness in Santa Cruz County. Part two runs next week.]

Both the Santa Cruz City Council and the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors have approved a visionary plan to end chronic homelessness by 2020, but it’s unclear just how the plan’s goals will be accomplished.

The plan aims to get chronically homeless people into permanent housing first, then address the causes of their homelessness through services once they are housed, as Mayor Don Lane outlined at a speech to the Democratic Women’s Committee (DWC) last month.

The “All In Toward a Home for Every County Resident” plan documents a policy shift that aims to reduce and eventually end homelessness by moving from simply “managing” the problem with emergency and temporary shelters and services to “Housing First” policies that provide permanent, supportive housing, Lane says.     

Lane is a key supporter of the plan, but admits it will not be easy to get roughly 1,000 people into permanent housing in the next five years. “The plan is a policy document that shows us what we need to do. It gives us all a roadmap of where we need to go,” Lane says.

As far as roadmaps go, the plan is long on vision and short on specifics. At this point, no one is quite sure how the community will develop enough new housing units to meet the goal, or secure enough subsidies to cover the rent.

But the move toward “housing first” policies is one that stretches well beyond Santa Cruz, having gained traction nationwide as the most viable, cost-effective solution to homelessness.

Embracing that same approach, Santa Cruz County’s “All In” strategic plan is 15 months in the making, thanks to a community outreach effort led by United Way government officials, homeless services agencies, and other stakeholders.

Cost-benefit studies show that a subsidized unit of housing is far less expensive in the long run than the alternative method of “managing” the homeless, which relies on costly emergency medical services, long-term medical care, police time,  jail, and the revolving doors of emergency shelters.

So far, the housing-first model is working in Santa Cruz County, according to data from the multi-agency initiative formerly known as 180/180, which set a goal in 2012 to house 180 homeless people by July of 2014. The program, which is part of the national 100,000 Homes Campaign, has provided Section 8 housing subsidy vouchers from the Housing Authority to the most medically vulnerable, chronically homeless individuals. It provides them regular rental units after landlords agree to accept the vouchers. After reaching its goal of housing 180 individuals in May of 2014, leaders re-branded the program 180/2020, and continued doing what they were doing—this time with the goal of ending homelessness entirely by the year 2020. To date, 180/2020 has housed 268 disabled individuals—25 percent of whom are veterans—in permanent rental units.

Coordinated Entry

The county Board of Supervisors embraced the “All In” plan, especially its top priority—a “Coordinated Entry” system, which streamlines what was once a fragmented array of agencies and programs serving the homeless. The plan focuses on increased efficiency and better targeting of services to address specific needs of various “subpopulations,” including homeless prevention assistance for families on the brink of losing their housing.

The issue of where the actual housing units will come from is not addressed in the document, and was only briefly discussed by the County Supervisors and City Councilmembers. When 5th District Supervisor Bruce McPherson asked for an estimate of how many additional units would be needed to realize the goals, Julie Conway of the planning department responded that roughly 1,000 new units will be necessary.  

Conway, housing manager for the county, is optimistic that new policies like the county’s recent Economic Vitality Strategy will provide for this increase in housing. Over the last seven years, she adds, funding sources have more than doubled the number of “year-round” supportive housing beds for homeless people. She expects this trend to continue.

“The biggest obstacle, of course, is the tight housing market,” she says.     

Then there’s the issue of how the county will be able to secure enough rent subsidies.

Ken Cole, executive director the county’s Housing Authority, has been divvying up Section 8 rent subsidy vouchers funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) between low-income families on a waiting list and at-risk homeless people. Of the currently funded Section 8 vouchers that become available each month through regular turnover, there is a HUD-imposed cap on the number that can be assigned to homeless people. “Striking this balance is never easy,” Cole says. “While the V.A. is making more vouchers available for homeless vets, HUD has been less responsive making more vouchers available for chronically homeless.”

About 28 percent of the homeless in Santa Cruz qualify as chronically homeless—that is, homeless for more than a year or homeless four times within the past three years. The total number of homeless individuals counted in the “Point-in-Time” (PIT) Homeless Census and Survey grew from 2,771 in 2011 to 3,536 in 2013—an increase of 27 percent.

Meanwhile, the Santa Cruz–Watsonville area was rated the sixth least affordable rental market in the nation by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, requiring a full time hourly wage of $30.71 necessary for one wage-earner to afford average market rent for a two-bedroom apartment. Some are worried about what all this means for families.

“It’s not that I don’t care about the homeless,” says Wendy Macias, a renter in Santa Cruz County involved with the Coalition for Affordable Housing who attended Lane’s speech at the DWC. “But I’m worried about the coming gentrification from the tech industry on regular working families. We’ve got an overall need for affordable housing, not just for the homeless.”

The 2013 homeless census found that 72 percent of homeless individuals surveyed were residents of  Santa Cruz when they became homeless, and the rate of migration to Santa Cruz of those already homeless is no higher than Monterey County, San Mateo County or San Francisco. Although she voted to adopt the “All In” plan, Santa Cruz City Councilmember Richelle Noroyan scrutinized the data behind the homeless count. “This data is not consistent from what I’ve heard from many first responders who deal with homeless problems,” Noroyan said at the March 24 meeting.

The 2013 census also found that only about 18 percent of the homeless in Santa Cruz—or 1.8 people out of 10—got a safe place to sleep in one of the roughly 600 shelter beds available in emergency shelters or other transitional housing programs. The 2013 PIT census report included a graphic indicating that if the remaining 2,985 unsheltered homeless were to line up for an available shelter bed, the line would extend for more than one mile.