Santa Cruz County tallied 2,249 houseless individuals in the 2017 Point-in-Time Census. Only 20 percent of these individuals reported being in a shelter when the survey was conducted — meaning the remaining 80 percent were unsheltered, some living in vehicles, makeshift shelters or on the streets.

In an attempt to decrease these numbers, Downtown Streets Team (DST) is offering a volunteer work experience program where members of the houseless community, or those at risk of becoming houseless, volunteer to improve their communities. A public ribbon cutting event in downtown Santa Cruz on Oct. 3 introduced DST to the Santa Cruz community. Founded in 2005 by the Business Improvement District in Palo Alto, the program has spread to a total of eight locations in California. Santa Cruz is the newest of them.

Illustration by Lizzy Choi

“I just needed something to do. Sitting on those park benches on Pacific Avenue is not for me. I have to be busy. I have to be productive, and this team right here is giving me the chance to do that,” DST team leader Whiteowl said.

Whiteowl has lived in Santa Cruz since July 15. He was able to get a California ID and is working toward getting a part time job through services provided by DST. Whiteowl is the team leader for the levee team, and he and his crew are responsible for cleaning up trash on both sides of the San Lorenzo River from Highway 1 to the Boardwalk. Team members also work along Pacific Avenue. Soon, the program hopes to start projects that reach Main and Cowell beaches.

DST provides non-cash stipends to its team members, including gift cards for food and hygiene retailers, connections with case management and employment counseling resources. In addition to helping members receive basic needs, these resources help members with resume writing, job application and business outreach. The program allows team members to volunteer for a year while

they search for permanent housing and employment.

Because barriers for entry often prevent people from accessing resources they need, the program doesn’t perform background checks, drug tests or an interview process, said DST project manager Greg Pensinger.

“We give them an alternative where they earn […] the money they need to access their basic needs such as food and toiletries,” Pensinger said. “They can apply it to storage or they can get supportive housing. They can apply it to rent. If they’re living in their vehicle, they can apply it to vehicle expenses.”

While Mayor Cynthia Chase is optimistic about the program’s potential, she said it’s going to take more than DST’s efforts to turn around houselessness in Santa Cruz.

“The magnitude of [houselessness] here is significant. [DST] is one of the pieces that’s going to help, but one of the things we have to do as a community is

create housing options,” Chase said. “Where I think we need to put our efforts [into figuring out how we can] fit Downtown Streets Team into the existing services that we have and to expand our housing options so that folks aren’t just doing work downtown, but actually have a way to get out of [houselessness].”

In the future, DST hopes to partner with the Santa Cruz Homeless Services Center, the Homeless Garden Project, the Homeless Persons Health Project and other organizations. On top of beautification projects, DST aims to host public speaking and education events where team members can share the realities of houselessness with students and nonprofit groups.

“To find solutions that work on a systemic level, we have to change the way that we talk about [houselessness]. There’s a huge gap in communication here at Santa Cruz. […] I think there’s an opportunity to really bridge that gap,” Pensinger said.