Help is Here But Out of Reach

Houseless community struggles to access services

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The city of Santa Cruz attempts to provide services for over 200 people who sleep outside, but is limited by state funding and an incomplete understanding of the houseless experience. Consequently, many are questioning whether the city is addressing the root of the problem — accessibility.

Ashley Rodgers glanced nervously at the town clock as she walked briskly through downtown Santa Cruz. It was almost 4 p.m.

She, and her heart rate, sped up. She knew to not lose her spot at the rehabilitation center she’s been waitlisted for, she had to call at 4 p.m. each day. But her phone was dead.

Standing outside a downtown coffee shop, Rodgers prepared herself for the role she was about to play — herself, but before she lost her house. She walked in, hoping to charge her phone undisturbed and not lose a chance at getting help.

“You just have to pull off this whole act to be able to use the bathroom like a normal person, it’s really dehumanizing,” said Rodgers, who’s lived in Santa Cruz her entire life, only to lose her house last November.

Rodgers’ story reflects the experiences of many houseless people. People who do not have access to electricity, for example, are unable to charge their phones, blocking them from contacting potential resources.

In the midst of Santa Cruz’s housing crisis, around 70 houseless community members sleep at the San Lorenzo River Park. Sanitation is one of the many problems that community organizations are trying to solve as public sanitary facilities are extremely unsanitary.
photo by Alonso Hernandez

To address these daily struggles, houseless advocate and director of the Warming Center program Brent Adams, facilitated a community discussion in San Lorenzo Park, where as many as 70 houseless individuals camp. The main topics voiced by members of the houseless community were intracommunal theft, insufficient and inaccessible sharps containers and unsanitary conditions.

Theft and Storage

“All of your [stuff] is exposed, right there like a yard sale. It’s like a free pile at the flea market,” said Elizabeth, a houseless resident who preferred to use only her first name and was recently robbed of her heart medication.

The city of Santa Cruz and local nonprofit organizations provide resources for houseless people, but many of these resources are inaccessible and therefore limited. With no place to safely store their belongings, houseless individuals must carry everything they own or have someone trustworthy watch over their things.

“They’re trapped by their belongings,” Adams said. “People experiencing homelessness don’t just travel to the West Side or travel to the East Side based on things that they need, they’re fixed.”

The Santa Cruz Homeless Services Center (SCHSC), which is funded partially by the city, offers housing and health programs including mailrooms and shower facilities. It’s located alongside Highway 1 on Coral Street, opposite downtown and one mile from San Lorenzo Park.

“I haven’t used the shower facilities because I am scared of my stuff getting stolen,” Ashley Rodgers said, as there is currently no storage at the SCHSC.

Houseless people also can’t use port-a-potties without the risk of theft. This risk is particularly burdensome for people, such as Elizabeth, with medical needs.

This May, Adams proposed the city’s Homeless Coordinating Committee implement more mobile solutions to houseless issues. Proposals included a shower trailer rather than public showers placed at a fixed, often remote location.

One result of this initiative was building a storage facility at the SCHSC. City Manager Martín Bernal said the storage unit should open next month, but many houseless individuals and advocates believe this won’t fully solve the problem.

“The conundrum with giving them the large chunk of funding is that they could be open 24 hours a day and people still won’t go up there,” Brent Adams said.

                                          SANITATION

The unsanitary state of public hygiene services also deters houseless people from using them. For instance, the port-a-potties in Santa Cruz are cleaned every five days, but feces and needles are still often strewn inside and outside of the facilities.

“They’re nasty, filthy, and I’d rather shit in the woods,” houseless resident Elizabeth said. “I don’t want to go in one and I definitely would not let my kid go in one.”

The city Parks and Recreation Department closed San Lorenzo Park on Nov. 9 for deep cleaning. That night, the Warming Center was open for the nearly 70 displaced individuals who could not sleep in the park. Rangers conducted irrigation repairs, marked camping zones, established boundaries for environmental restoration and picked up over 100 needles.

The only needle bin near San Lorenzo Park is located at the entrance on Water Street, away from the sites where needle users typically inject. Parks and Recreation Department Director Mauro Garcia recognizes this concern from the using community and said the city is looking into alternatives to decrease the public health risk created by dozens of used needles lying on the ground. These concerns are amplified by the hepatitis A outbreak. An additional cleanup is planned for the last week of November, Garcia said to the Good Times.

“When sharps containers have been installed in some of the parks in the past, they have been broken into, torn off the wall, or destroyed one way or another,” Mauro said, “so it’s difficult to staff watching them. We understand what the concern is and resolving that isn’t as easy as it may seem.”

Access to water is limited as well, with only one water fountain in San Lorenzo Park. While it is sanitized daily, it is used by each of the 60-70 park inhabitants.

“It’s not easy [to get water] at all,” Elizabeth said. “There’s a trickle spout here, and really there’s no machine near here […] unless you go to Safeway I think, but I don’t know of any downtown at all.”

Systemic Limitations

City Manager Martín Bernal said the city is limited in its ability to manage the impact of houselessness as a systemic problem. He said health, human services and welfare are the county’s responsibility, not the city’s. And since the counties act as an entity of the state, he said, tackling houseless issues is ultimately dependent on state funding.

“It’s frustrating, because we are doing very little as a society to address the root cause of homelessness. As a city we are limited in terms of what we can do to,” Bernal said. “If they gave us funding to operate [more] programs we would be open to doing so.”

While the SCHSC extended some of its services, such as increasing the shower facility hours by 75 percent, Bernal said, it cut back some of its emergency services. This is because a few years ago the center lost some of its federal funding for emergency services when the state allocated that money for permanent transitional housing services instead.

Brent Adams, who advocated for the programs the city is preparing to implement, expressed reservations with allocating the majority of funding toward building storage facilities at the SCHSC. He said it makes little sense for a storage facility to be on the outskirts of town, when houseless people still have to sleep in the park.

“We have been doubling down on a broken system,” Adams said. “[Funding] never reaches the street. We have redundant bureaucracies, [it’s a] highly inefficient situation […] when we are talking about the needs of people on the street.”