Illustration by Lisa Bizuneh

Zero houseless youth by 2022. That is Santa Cruz County’s goal. 

But almost two years have passed since the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded funds in 2017 to help the county reach its goal. Due to a complex approval process, nonprofits are just now receiving those funds.

In 2017, HUD’s new Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP) awarded $2.2 million to Santa Cruz. The aim was to aid houseless youth under the age of 24 who are unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. 

Before the YHDP began in 2017, almost no programs addressing youth houselessness existed in Santa Cruz. 

“The majority of funding addressing [houselessness] is focused more on chronically [houseless] individuals or support for entering housing,” said Christine Sippl, director of Encompass, the nonprofit that leads the Santa Cruz YHDP. “That’s a loss for all communities. If we targeted resources to the youth population before they become [houseless] later in life, it would be more effective.” 

On Jan. 8, 2017, the biennial Santa Cruz County Homeless Census counted about 588 unaccompanied youth living in various states of houselessness. Of that total, 98 percent were living unsheltered in places “not fit for human habitation.”

But census numbers only measure a percentage of a given houseless population on one single night and strictly adheres to HUD definitions of houselessness. This can leave many houseless youth unaccounted for.

Reasons for avoiding census takers include safety concerns like fear of encountering past abusers. Others fear having their whereabouts known. For instance, the children of Latinx undocumented immigrants risk deportation when reporting their houselessness. 

“It’s a unique population with hidden members and needs varying from case to case,” said  Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, independent contractor for Encompass. “Their needs are quite different than the adult population, so the approaches also need to be different. […] All these years we’ve had services for [houselessness] in the community, but none to serve our youth.” 

The YHDP provides funding and guidelines for the community to run services. In Santa Cruz, with no county department managing the housing crisis, the task falls on local nonprofits.   

“There’s this idea that somehow we’re not going to fund services for our [houseless] on a national, state or county level,” Kalantari-Johnson said. “Instead, let’s count on all these nonprofits to do fundraising and run only on grants.”

Even when funds do reach nonprofits, strict guidelines limit how those funds are used. HUD funding must be spent specifically on people defined as “unaccompanied youth.” 

“We rely on multiple sources of funding,” said Encompass program director Christine Sippl. “So we can’t ethically and with good integrity give services to the entire [houseless] youth population.”

Encompass expects to break ground on a youth-focused drop-in center in 2019 with funding from the state Homeless Emergency Aid Program and the YHDP. The drop-in center will foster a safe space for youth where they can access services including showers, laundry and food while searching for housing, Sippl said.

Families in Transition (FIT) director Melisa Vierra said it’s crucial to prioritize working with landlords in the Santa Cruz community to find existing affordable housing options. FIT operates programs serving families in need of temporary short term phase rental assistance.

“In addition to everything that we’ve used across the board for families, were really trying to incorporate new, innovate ways to outreach to youth,” Vierra said.

FIT started the Young Adults Achieving Success program through the Santa Cruz YHDP, which focuses on rapid rehousing geared specifically to the HUD-defined youth population. 

YHDP members agree that effective youth outreach is crucial.

“We know that our counts of [houseless] people are underreported,” Christine Sippl said, “especially in young adult populations because they don’t get counted with the older [houseless] folks, who are either camping together or sitting on the streets or in adult shelters.” 

Despite these challenges, Encompass envisions a system that will see all youth individually helped on a case-by-case basis on the path to housing stability. 

“Addressing this is so important for our community,” Sippl said. “We must come together, work and create together.”