Community Assessment Project report outlines Santa Cruz County's quality of life

Crime is up, and half of all jail bookings are booze-related. Homelessness is spiking, and housing costs are eating up a bigger share of the family dollar. Fewer people have health insurance, and fewer than one in three have full-time jobs.

SANTA CRUZ SENTINEL
By JASON HOPPIN

Yet no matter how dark things look, the optimism of Santa Cruzans is unyielding -- nothing can get them to take off their rose-colored sunglasses, according to an annual countywide survey released Monday. A whopping 98 percent of locals say they are satisfied with their lives.

"My theory is that people sacrifice a lot to live here. They sacrifice in wages and they sacrifice how much they have to spend on housing. They choose to be here," said Mary Lou Goeke, executive director of the United Way of Santa Cruz County. "They say, Gee, there are some hardships here,' but they say, This is my community. This is where I want to be.' So they put up with things here they wouldn't ordinarily put up with. They value living here."

Sponsored by the United Way and several community and governmental groups, the 17th annual Community Assessment Project documents the continued erosion of many vital measures, with the declines appearing driven by the poor economy.

The report, presented at a meeting Monday at Dominican Hospital, covers everything from public safety and economic data to views on the environment and recreational drug use.

The picture is particularly troubling in South County, with 85 percent of Latinos saying they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing and 43 percent saying they've been forced to live temporarily with others during the past year.


While Latinos appear to be bearing the brunt of the bad economy -- Watsonville unemployment remains above 22 percent -- the problems are broader. Countywide unemployment is about 10 percent, and jobs here are scarce -- only half of those making less than $35,000 annually thought they had opportunities to work in the Santa Cruz area.


"It's a challenge that needs to be tackled by the community and the county as whole," said Caleb Baskin, a local attorney who helped oversee the report.


The number of crimes per 1,000 residents jumped from 36 to 40 during the past year, a red flag for many. But juvenile arrests are down in every community except Watsonville, where the number of youths arrested for felonies has more than doubled during the past decade.


During the same period, the number of drug arrests has jumped, even as Santa Cruz's traditional acceptance of recreational marijuana use has remained relatively high, at nearly 50 percent. Nearly half of San Lorenzo Valley residents say methamphetamine use has impacted their community.


Rama Khalsa, who heads the county Health Services Agency, sounded a warning about the county's attitude toward drug use.


"We need to look at that. We need to look at what message that sends," Khalsa said.


Khalsa also said about one in five county residents are uninsured or underinsured. Second Harvest Food Bank helped more than 52,000 people put food on the table in 2010, an all-time high. An increasing number of people are struggling with homelessness, 35 percent of whom sleep on the streets, according to the county's Homeless Census and Survey.


"This is a telling sign of a downward economy," said Monica Martinez, executive director of the Homeless Service Center.


The report outlines several positives, which likely contribute to the overwhelming local satisfaction with the quality of life here.


People are satisfied with local schools, and test scores generally are up. The number of reported child abuse cases is down. The number of organic farms continues to rise.


Forty-five percent think neighbors help each other out, 41 percent regularly do volunteer work and 65 percent regularly contribute money to charity.


Voter turnout is also high compared to the rest of California, and 80 percent say they are knowledgeable about local issues. About half say they have either attended a town meeting or public hearing, or met with or corresponded with a local official.


And -- Santa Cruz being Santa Cruz -- 18 percent say they have joined a protest or demonstration over the past year.