"All In" plan new approach to Santa Cruz homelessness

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Santa Cruz Sentinel
"All In" plan new approach to Santa Cruz homelessness
by Jessica A. York

Law enforcement agencies are often the public’s first call in response to problems with the area’s homeless population.

Police, however, said Santa Cruz Deputy Police Chief Rick Martinez, are neither a short- or long-term solution for Santa Cruz County. The several dozen community partners seated and standing in front of him, however, were.

Watsonville single mother of two Maria Cerillos stood before that audience at the affordable-housing Aptos Blue Apartments Wednesday, saying that two years ago, she escaped from homelessness after a month of living in her car. The key, said Cerillos, was the assistance of a the Pajaro Valley Shelter Services, which provided direction and guidance; police pulling her over for an expired vehicle registration just caused her to fear losing her family’s only shelter, she said.

“If it wasn’t for Pajaro Valley Shelter Services, I don’t know where I would be with my two kids. My daughter has been wonderful in school … and nobody knew what we were going through. I had the courage, the determination to not show it to anybody,” Cerillos said. “I’m moving forward in life and seeing my kids healthy, mentally healthy, gives me the determination to keep going. I’m just representing, because I know how that feels when you see people in the parks, when you see people coming, single mother with their babies. ‘All In’ is just the beginning and the hope for many other families out there.”

Participants were celebrating completion of a multiyear joint effort to create a new countywide strategic plan to end homelessness. The “All In: Toward a Home for Every County Resident” report was funded by Santa Cruz County and administered by the United Way of Santa Cruz County, with partners Smart Solutions to Homelessness and the Homeless Action Partnership. The report takes over where the region’s previous 10-year homelessness plan leaves off, with updated methods, streamlined response and tracking of those in need, and greater cultural sensitivity and awareness of issues in all parts of the county, officials said. Though the plan does not have an official expiration date, projects are ranked as having either short-term (one to three years) or long-term (three to six years) completion goal.

Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane, a member of the 30-member strategic plan steering committee and Smart Solutions to Homelessness advocacy team, said Wednesday’s gathering reminded him of a commencement, presenting a sort of thesis after extensive study of the problem.

“But think about that word, ‘commencement.’ It really doesn’t reflect and ending, but a beginning,” Lane said. “We have a lot of work to do. We’ve done great work to create a good plan, really a great plan, but now we have to go out and do the work.”

One steering committee member, conspicuous by her absence and named attached to the report after a two-year involvement in the plan’s creation, said the document did not go far enough. “All In” has many components that represent a commendable step forward from previous efforts, such as streamlined data entry for all those seeking homeless assistance countywide, said Deborah Elston, co-founder of the Santa Cruz Neighbors group. What is missing, Elston said, are specific rules and standards by which the area’s homeless denizens themselves must abide, and a more elaborate ranking system determining the county’s priorities for limited funding. She pointed to successful strides that the city of Santa Monica has made in reducing its homeless population, using a different type of guiding principals.

“I was trying to find the middle ground and reflect the neighbors’ feedback, the community’s feedback. They were looking for rules,” Elston said in an interview earlier this week. “I’m not talking about limiting human beings and human nature, and I’m more than willing to take care of those people who are really in need of help, but I think our open door hurts our effectiveness.”

Both Lane and United Way Executive Director Mary Lou Goeke said Elston brought a significant viewpoint to the table in the strategic planning and were sorry to see her separate herself at the end of the process.

“We really had a countywide focus, the whole county of Santa Cruz. I think Deb, properly — she lives in Santa Cruz, does her work in Santa Cruz — really saw it through the lens of a Santa Cruz city resident,” Lane said. “But there’s a lot of issues that transcend city boundaries, and a lot of programs that are countywide. Our needs are countywide.”