Passed in late March, the Temporary Outdoor Living Ordinance that would have enforced harsh relocation policies toward unhoused people was ultimately withdrawn after widespread community opposition. While the Santa Cruz City Council evaluates next steps, a different, county-wide framework is seeking to provide long-term solutions for the houseless population.

At a Watsonville City Council meeting on April 27, Santa Cruz County Health and Human Services Director Randy Morris delivered a harsh prognosis on the state of the houseless crisis in Santa Cruz.

“I have come to see some things are solvable by local government, and I have come to see some things that are large, complex, profound, [and] historic and are much bigger than any city or any county can solve,” Morris said. “Homelessness is one of those humanitarian crises in the United States […] that is much bigger than a city, much bigger than a county.”

Despite the dourness of that sentiment, Morris presented a new framework to address the unhoused situation alongside Dr. Robert Ratner, head of the newly created Housing for Health Division (H4H). 
The Housing for a Healthy Santa Cruz Strategic Framework, implemented in Jan. 2021, outlines strategies that will address the lack of support for the unhoused community. Under the new plan, H4H will be providing resources ranging from mental health care to longer term housing to expanded case management services. 

A Brief History of HAP

Central to the discussion is the understaffed, underfunded Homeless Action Partnership (HAP) — Santa Cruz County’s Continuum of Care (CoC), a federally required entity aimed at managing funding and programs for houseless populations. 

Originally, HAP’s main focus was to act as a middleman for funding, advising other offices on how to allocate their expenses regarding houselessness. In 2018, California implemented two new statewide programs, the Homeless Emergency Aid Program and California Emergency Solutions and Housing, and sent funding directly to CoCs like HAP. 

“This organization was stood up because of a federal requirement, and then the state overlaid a whole bunch of responsibilities on to it that it was never intended to carry,” said HAP Countywide Homeless Coordinator Rayne Perez. “Our governance wasn’t structured in such a way to facilitate all that decision-making that suddenly became necessary.” 

The new funding put pressure on HAP, which struggled to meet its responsibilities and maintain a sound and transparent governance structure. A 2019 assessment found numerous cracks in HAP’s structure: inadequate funding and staffing, poor representation of stakeholders in its decision-making body, and unclear guidance and coordination without an established central authority. 

With no space or funding to address the root causes of houselessness — a lack of access to affordable housing or to mental and physical health services — HAP focused too narrowly on baseline CoC requirements that provide short-term measures, like shelters, to houseless individuals.

“[The new funding] was a disrupter of sorts,” Perez said. “It both gave us laser focus on how important it was to have good governance, and also helped us to realize that we were not as far along as we needed to be in order to meet that moment.”

The result of that disruption eventually led to a revamp of the Santa Cruz CoC through H4H’s new framework.

The Three-Year Plan

The new proposed framework has slowly been implemented since January, with a new governance body set to begin by August under H4H and headed by Dr. Robert Ratner. Ratner will implement a six-month action plan for increased financial transparency and community accountability that will move toward goals set for 2024. 

H4H’s new direction hopes to address the complexity and variety of experiences that unhoused people have, by ensuring different services are available to different subgroups.

The new framework operates under a housing first model, where houseless people are moved into various forms of longer term, supportive housing to give them the stability to find work and get medical care — as opposed to only providing shelter in the winter. Some of the strategies to achieve this include expanding the availability of rapid rehousing, affordable housing for extremely low-income households (ELI), and permanent supportive housing, which provides housing alongside specific case-management and health needs.  

The goal is to achieve a 30 percent reduction in the number of people experiencing houselessness by the time an annual survey is conducted in Jan. 2024. H4H also hopes to achieve a 50 percent reduction in the number of houseless individuals living in places not meant for housing, such as the streets, cars, and unsafe structures — a subcategory of the overall houseless population, as it does not include people in shelters or transitional housing.

“There can be a belief that what we see is the full story of houselessness, so often encampments near freeways are people living in really unsafe or unhealthy conditions,” said Dr. Ratner. “That becomes people’s version of houselessness, but the vast majority of people experiencing houselessness are not living in that situation.”

A 2020 report from the California Housing Partnership found that in Santa Cruz County renters need to earn $41.37 per hour to afford the average monthly rent of $2,151. That is more than three times higher than the minimum wage. The graph below highlights a 10,150 unit shortage of affordable low-income rentals, meaning that even for the housed, the rental market is highly competitive. As a result, it is even harder for unhoused County residents to land a permanent living situation without assistance.

Housing Affordability Gap in Santa Cruz County. Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Human Services Department.

Budgetary Shortfalls

In spite of the new direction, funding will likely remain an issue. There is still a large gap between existing funding and what is needed to meaningfully mitigate unhoused issues. A 2019 report examining houselessness in the Bay Area determined that it would cost $12.7 billion dollars to build enough permanent housing for the 28,200 unhoused Bay Area residents.

“Using that model, the cost for Santa Cruz’s houseless population would be a little bit over $1.4 billion,” said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty. “That is bigger than all the county budgets in Santa Cruz combined.”

On top of that, a significant portion of the funding that comes into organizations under the HAP umbrella come as one-time grants.

Recently, a significant amount of funding has been given to Santa Cruz County through FEMA to provide a degree of COVID-19 safety for the unhoused. This has enabled the county to run temporary managed encampments, but when that funding expires on Sept. 30, some 600 unhoused individuals will be left without somewhere to live. 

Perez said that HAP has just allocated one-time federal funding to support case management and rapid rehousing contracts in order to mitigate this situation, but the main concern remains — sustainable, renewable funding is difficult to secure.

“We have one time funding for a lot of activities, but sustainable funding is always a challenge,” Perez said. “For example […] when the federal government stops providing FEMA support for [the temporary managed encampments], we will be forced to demobilize many of those sites and we’ll have difficult choices to make about what we can continue operating into the future.”