“We all know that there are problems with the system — there is a large transient population in our city, and that Santa Cruz has its issues. But I want to be clear about one thing: None of these things caused this horrific crime. A single individual did.”
Speaking just a week after his wife was killed while walking home from work, Ken Vinson said the killer’s actions were not emblematic of the city’s overall houseless population. Convicted felon Charles Anthony Edwards III, charged with the murder of Shannon Collins, had stayed four nights at the Homeless Services Center in Santa Cruz.
It’s clear that our city has a houseless problem. Roughly 2,700 people are left to wander the streets in Santa Cruz County, according to the 2011 Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey. Twenty-four of these individuals died on the streets last year.
Yet, in the wake of Shannon Collins’ death, the Santa Cruz City Council has jumped on the opportunity to frame the houseless in an “us vs. them” fashion. Historically, the city council has aggressively sought to rid Santa Cruz’s houseless by showing them that they are not welcome: The city’s sleeping ban has criminalized houselessness for over 40 years and last year’s Occupy Santa Cruz movement saw police raids shredding tents and outdoor survival kits used by many otherwise houseless individuals.
The course of action proposed May 17 by council members Hilary Bryant, Ryan Coonerty and Lynn Robinson serve more to persecute the houseless population than to assist them. Their plan would have the Homeless Services Center create an identification registry of its tenants and allow police to review these records. This level of stigmatization of transients does little more than label them as endemically criminal.
In addition, the proposal would seek to expand the city’s bus program to ship out houseless people who came in from out of town. Though the city council is wary of ensuring the houseless that someone will be waiting on the other side, or that some form of work will be made available for them, it is content with just funneling them out of the city. Couple that with the fact that the city council firmly indicated that they will not look to create any additional Homeless Services facilities and it becomes clear that our city council is not interested in helping the houseless.
In fact, one member cut to the chase in saying “other jurisdictions in Santa Cruz County need to share equally in the costs and location of social services.”
There are better, more constructive ways that the community can address the city’s houseless issue. 180/180, led by project manager Philip Kramer, seeks to provide permanent housing and support services to those in need of it. Many local businesses contribute to feeding the houseless through St. Mary’s Catholic Soup Kitchen. Community members continue to defend the rights of the houseless through local organization Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom.
Still, the city council thinks it would be easier to sweep the problem under the rug, to piggyback off of the community’s anguish following Collins’ death. For the council members, it’s easier to depict the houseless as just a problem to be dealt with rather than people in need of help.