The Santa Cruz City Council adopted the Homelessness Response Action Plan (HRAP) on March 8, taking on $14 million provided by the state to combat houselessness in the  city.

Improved services for the unhoused are at the heart of the plan, such as the expansion of hygiene facilities, mental health services, and access to more permanent and stable housing. Collaboration with the county departments to expand these services is vital to its implementation. Larry Imwalle, City of Santa Cruz’s Homelessness Response Manager, described the impetus of the HRAP.

$14 million allocation:
$1.18 million for Care and Organizational stewardship
$8 million for sheltering, hygiene, and storage
$969,000 for program administration and legislative advocacy
$4.2 million for permanent housing

“It is both addressing the immediate needs to support people where they’re at, but intentionally to make that transition or movement towards getting people on the path towards more stable housing,” stated  Imwalle. 

Additionally, the plan would see the closure of the San Lorenzo Benchlands encampment by the summer of 2022. The encampment saw previous turmoil this past season with winter rains causing flooding, displacing many residents at the  camp. 

The closure of the Benchlands symbolizes a key aspect of the plan, centered around establishing permanent spaces for the houseless community as opposed to temporary encampments. 

“I want to be crystal clear that [the Benchlands] is not our vision of effective shelter,” said Santa Cruz City Manager Matt Huffaker at the March 8 City Council meeting. “When encampments grow to that size, we’re not able to provide the standard of care or the standard of service that really helps to get those individuals on a path to permanent supportive housing.”

Imwalle pointed to the Encampment Resolution Grant, recently awarded to the City, as an example of new outreach and case management efforts. This grant focuses on areas around the San Lorenzo River, including the Benchlands, and provides case management services such as connections to more permanent and stable housing for the occupants of the  encampment. 

In the meantime, the City is planning to categorize the Benchlands as 150 safe sleeping beds, rather than an encampment, to implement the Camping Services and Standards Ordinance (CSSO), as directed by  the HRAP.

The adoption of the HRAP will also see the implementation of First passed by the council in June 2021, CSSO would prohibit encampments across the city if there is an available sanctioned sheltering location. The ordinance has not been enforced over the past year due to the lack of a city-provided sheltering location, but the creation of sheltering locations as directed by the HRAP and the temporary categorization of the Benchlands would see CSSO being  enforced.

Serg Kagno of Stepping Up Santa Cruz, an organization that helps people find available houseless services in Santa Cruz County, expressed his criticisms of the categorization in a public comment at the March 8 City Council meeting.

“Currently considering the Benchlands as part of the new 150 safe sleeping places required to enforce the CSSO is not providing the required safe sleeping places,” Kagno said.“It’s not in line with health and policies to require people to move to the Benchlands when the city is not willing to guarantee their  safety.”

Kagno also criticized the HRAP, calling it a lost opportunity for not leveraging the knowledge of those experiencing houselessness to review the plan and make  improvements.

The plan would implement the Oversized Vehicle Ordinance which places parking restrictions on RVs and other vehicles that may be used for overnight sleeping. The ordinance will likely go into effect in summer 2022 following approval of associated permits. Following the implementation, the city will provide up to 66 safe parking cites for those displaced by the  restrictions. 

Both ordinances have been criticized and described as “criminalizing homeless” by Santa Cruz Cares and the Democratic Socialists of America, Santa Cruz. 

Concerns have also arisen over where funding for positions established by the HRAP will come from once the initial $14 million dollars runs out, which is mostly going to investment in infrastructure and service  implementation. 

“Over the long term, [HRAP] is going to require new revenue. The City General Fund is not going to be sufficient to do that,” said  Imwalle.

Going forward, Imwalle emphasized the importance of acquiring grants and other funding, such as a general revenue ballot proposal, to maintain the programs established by HRAP. 

The adoption of HRAP is occurring in tandem with Point-in-Time count by the Homeless Action Partnership (HAP), a county-wide collaboration of local agencies and service providers to coordinate resources, programs, and data on houselessness around the county.  

HAP traditionally conducts counts of local houseless populations throughout the county every two years, with the planned 2021 count delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. HAP’s last Point-in-Time count in 2019 found that 1,197 individuals in the City of Santa Cruz were experiencing  houselessness.

As data is collected to reassess the state of houselessness in Santa Cruz, it only gives Imwalle and the city more impetus to push policy  forward.

“It’s the recognition that we need to move from temporary solutions and responses to moving towards […] this holistic and integrated approach that’s working towards more permanent and lasting solutions,” said Imwalle. “We’re trying to move from reactive to proactive.”