A Broad Brush Stroke: Homelessness in SC

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A Project Homeless Connect (PHC) volunteer prepares a plate of spaghetti during the PHC event on April 9. Photo by Daniel Green.
A Project Homeless Connect (PHC) volunteer prepares a plate of spaghetti during the PHC event on April 9. Photo by Daniel Green.

About 500 volunteers assembled at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium last Tuesday, united for a common cause: to provide a variety of essential services to the county’s homeless population.

Ken Shaw, one of Santa Cruz’s Project Homeless Connect’s (PHC) 11 steering committee members, said the event brought students, church members and other members of the Santa Cruz community together to help those in need.

“The goal is to bring together for one day, 40–50 services under one roof. So our clients can get the help they need in one day, which normally would take months and months to achieve,” Shaw said.

PHC has organized the event for four years. Founded in San Francisco in 2004, the one-day community-wide event has since branched out to over 260 cities across the United States, as well as in Canada and Australia. The Santa Cruz chapter of PHC, which was founded in 2010, is sponsored by United Way of Santa Cruz and Applied Survey Research and partnered with Santa Cruz Shelter as well as Homeless Persons Health Project.

Services provided range from dental, medical and mental health services to haircuts and services for pets. Organizations like Dominican Hospital volunteered a medical RV that provided free health screenings, while the Salvation Army gave out clothing vouchers.

“We get all of our funding from donations, churches, private donations and in-kind donations [ranging from toiletries or reading glasses],” Shaw said.

This year’s event was held when support for the homeless population was questioned by some city residents and officials amid an ongoing public safety debate sparked by a spike in violent crime in the last few months.

Clothing vouchers were provided to the homeless at one of the tables during the Project Homeless Connect event. Photo by Daniel Green.
Clothing vouchers were provided to the homeless at one of the tables during the Project Homeless Connect event. Photo by Daniel Green.

Vice Mayor Lynn Robinson recently proposed cutting $42,000 — roughly 25 percent — of the city’s funding for the Homeless Services Center, which provides meals, health services and a place to sleep, among other amenities. In a letter to the center’s executive director, Robinson expressed concern that Santa Cruz’s homeless population contributes disproportionately to crime and drug problems in the city.

“I’m convinced the services are not working,” Robinson said in an interview with the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “That is not the kind of agency that is giving our community a good outcome.”

Craig Reinarman, a professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz and member of PHC’s board of advisors who attended this year’s event, said those issues are linked only peripherally.

“They’re being painted by a very broad brush that lends itself to bad public policy,” he said. “I’m deeply troubled by what I see unfolding in Santa Cruz.”

Reinarman said those involved in criminal activity represent “only a small slice of the homeless population.” He said cutting financial support for the homeless is a counterproductive strategy in the long run.

“Study after study has shown that every dollar you invest in treatment will save you five to seven dollars in criminal justice fees,” Reinarman said.

Kymberly Lacrosse, a member of PHC’s steering committee who helped start the Santa Cruz chapter, said homelessness in Santa Cruz must be given deeper consideration before action is taken.

“People often want a quick fix, they’re freaking out thinking ‘this isn’t working, let’s cut funding’… that’s not going to get the results that we want,” Lacrosse said. “We need to have everybody on all views and angles of the problem participate in the process and make that decision together.”

People sign up for benefits at the Project Homeless Connect event. This was one of the many services available to the homeless at this event. Photo by Daniel Green.
People sign up for benefits at the Project Homeless Connect event. This was one of the many services available to the homeless at this event. Photo by Daniel Green.

The most recent statistics on homelessness compiled by Applied Survey Research (ASR) show that of Santa Cruz’s 60,342 residents, 2,771 are homeless — 4.6 percent. Samantha Green, senior research analyst for ASR said the homeless population is expected to grow, especially among young people.

“We have a generation of youth who are under the age of 25 who are struggling economically, they are accumulating large amounts of debt,” Green said. “The cost of living is just too high.”

Reinarman also stressed the impact the recent recession has had on the homeless population.

“We’re in the midst of coming slowly out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,” Reinarman said. “You have very high levels of unemployment, longer terms of unemployment, less public services available because they’ve been under attack and cut back, and you have hundreds of thousands of foreclosures in California alone … So you have people who sleep wherever they can.”

Marcus Kelly-Cobos was at the most recent PHC event. He was a homeless addict when he attended it a year ago. While he had initially only intended to “grab at some free stuff and services,” last year’s event had an unexpected impact after he found himself at a booth operated by Janus, a Santa Cruz rehabilitation center.

“For some reason I ended up at the Janus table, they gave me an assessment and a week later I was in the program. I got out and started getting really involved in the community,” Kelly-Cobos said. “I wouldn’t be standing here if I hadn’t come last year … I was in bad shape I used to use needle … you know the whole bit … it kind of got me back on track”.

Kelly-Cobos has been sober since then and is now taking classes at Cabrillo community college, hoping to become a registered addiction specialist. He also interns at Janus and was recently asked to join PHC’s steering committee.

Lacrosse said examples like Kelly-Cobos’ demonstrate why it’s essential to keep services available to those in need.

“Every single person coming in has a story … it’s not ‘oh they’re a this person or that person’ that mentality is what has to change,” Lacrosse said. “We have to deal with the problem, not blame the people … it’s important we change the context of the conversation from the persons behavior, not judge them and look at what we need to do to help.”