By Rachel Tennenbaum
Imagine yourself at the end of a long day in the hot sun. You have walked for hours and evening is now approaching. You sigh; soon you will be home and able to take a cool shower and a nap. Pause for a second. Imagine now that you have no home, and that after your long day you take the bus only to return to your car, or worse, to a patch of dry earth along the San Lorenzo Riverbank.
This is the nightly reality for over 3,000 homeless men, women and children in Santa Cruz County.
There are those who live quietly, and go virtually unnoticed save for a sleeping bag by the railroad tracks or a backpack resting in the forest or on the riverbank. And then there are the more visible groups that assemble along Pacific Avenue and interact with passers-by.
Homelessness has simply been accepted as a part of Santa Cruz, so much so that we take a person sleeping on the street for granted, without pausing to think of where they might turn when they need help.
Santa Cruz is not alone in this struggle. Homelessness is an issue that every city faces. Although the problem is nationwide, there are few national legislations or programs that offer support. The responsibility is thereby left with counties and cities that are ill-equipped to adequately help.
Michael Stoops, executive director and a founding member of the National Coalition for the Homeless, says that our society has turned a blind eye to homelessness.
“This issue should be mainstream,” said Stoops. “But we don’t have the infrastructure. There are more animal shelters [in the United States] then there are homeless shelters. [The homeless] have become the lowest priority; we are accustomed to seeing a homeless person downtown and we just walk on by.”
A Night Under the Stars: Homelessness in Santa Cruz
According to a survey conducted in 2005 by Applied Survey Research (ASR) there was an average of 3,293 homeless people documented in Santa Cruz County nightly. In contrast, the county provides emergency shelter for only 241 single individuals and 170 family members. In the months between November and April, the government rents out the National Guard Armory, which adds 100 emergency beds for the cold winter months. Still, this only provides room for 13 percent of the homeless population.
Ken Cole is the director of the Homeless Services Center, one of the largest nonprofits that help homeless in Santa Cruz County. Cole says that most of Santa Cruz’s homeless are forced to sleep out doors because of this lack of resources.
“Everything shows us that the supply of emergency shelter beds is not sufficient,” Cole said. “There’s a gap between supply and need, and it forces people into the green belts [the undeveloped land surrounding Santa Cruz].”
As problematic as sleeping in the woods may already be, it is also illegal to do so in Santa Cruz County. An ordinance that dates back to 1978 prohibits camping outside at night between the hours of 11 pm and 8:30 am, and is punishable by a $54 fine. There is also a law that prevents squatting within 50 feet of an ATM. Robert Norse, co-founder of the grassroots organization Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF), feels that the city specifically targets the homeless by enforcing these laws.
“It’s discrimination on an economic level.” Norse said. In contrast, he mentioned the fact that Los Angeles and San Diego have recently overturned their sleeping bans.
Vice Mayor of Santa Cruz Ryan Coonerty said that these laws are meant to keep the city safe, not to persecute the homeless population.
“The majority of funding for the city’s social welfare programs comes from businesses in the area, and if they suffer, monetary support for the homeless would as well,” Coonerty said. “If people do not feel safe, then we’ve failed as a community.”
This balancing act is understandable, as the city of Santa Cruz can only do so much without the aid of government- services.
The city spends $1.6 million of its annual budget on social welfare programs, but does so by placing money with nonprofit groups such as the Homeless Resources Center. The county and state fund homeless services in a similar manner. The Homeless Services Center receives 60 percent of its funding from the government and 40 percent from the private sector. The same model is used for homeless services across the nation.
Because of the lack of any central government funding, the state places pressure on city governments and nonprofits to help take care of the issue. However, no city is able to fully dedicate itself to building shelters, especially without the certain support of surrounding areas. There is fear that, by leading the way, available resources will be overburdened.
“The Magnet Theory is that ‘if you build it, they will come’ — by building services, people will come to Santa Cruz,” Cole said. He argued that this theory is incorrect and that a good percentage of Santa Cruz’s homeless population is made up of people who have lived in Santa Cruz County for 10 years or more.
Stoops agreed with Cole:
“It’s a big myth that ‘if you build it they will come,’” he said. “Communities should be proud to help people.”
The Country’s Negligence
An ostrich-esque attitude about homelessness can be found throughout the United States, and is enabled by our nation’s lack of structural support for the group. The country’s lack of policy reflects the cultural notion that the homeless are more of a burden than a legitimate concern.
“With the homeless it’s private people living in public places,” said Stoops. “We’re never willing to make it a priority, we never demand of our leaders that something be done. Cities are then forced to criminalize [the] situation.”
The repercussions of this “hush-hush” attitude have been most detrimental to homeless individuals. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless’ 2007 report, “Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street U.S.A.,” there were 142 attacks on homeless persons in 2006 alone. These attacks include 20 deaths, five rapes, six cases of immolation and 106 cases of non-lethal beatings.
There is now a movement on the state level to make crimes against the homeless a hate crime. In January 2007, the California Senate introduced Senate Bill 122, a piece of legislation that would add homelessness as a qualification for discrimination. If passed, the bill would raise awareness about the group and instate harsher punishments for perpetrators.
Santa Cruz, typically known as a kind city, is listed among those where hate crimes have occurred. Just as the issue of homelessness is nationwide, so are the degrading attitudes about the homeless that enable so many attacks to take place.
Rays Of Change
Despite difficulties finding national support, there are programs in Santa Cruz that are slowly paving the way in how to handle homelessness. These agencies help reinstate a level of humanism that they feel has been lacking for a long time. The Homeless Services Center offers transitional housing programs that have an extremely high success rate; after one year, 85 percent of those who have gone through the program are working and supporting themselves.
Another local effort is the Homeless Garden Project, a non-profit farm that employs and offers job training for Santa Cruz homeless. Dr. Dawn Coppin in the executive director of the project.
“It’s not a handout charity we are operating here,” said Coppin. “It’s a hand up rather than a hand out. The crew is giving back to a broader community, and there is pride in growing food and giving to others in need.”
Coppin stresses the importance of a complete and integral community.
“Santa Cruz will be stronger if more connections are made, rather than separations,” she said.
The project, which began in 1990, receives 60 percent of its funding from local sources. The city provides its administration building as well as some monetary support, but the project receives zero state or federal funding.
Spiritual centers, such as the Elm Street Mission, also do their share of helping the local homeless. Ben Palm is the director and a pastor at the mission, which has been working with the Santa Cruz community since 1972.
“We give you something to turn to other than yourself,” he explained. “All staff here has been on the streets as one point. Through Jesus we were able to turn our lives around.”
In addition to church services and Bible study classes, the mission offers seven meals a week and supplies like razors and clothing.
“We’re here for when people are ready to turn,” Palm said.
Kelli Roberts is a volunteer at the Elm Street Mission, and was homeless herself only a few years ago. She said that the Mission helped her finally defeat homelessness.
“These are right-on people,” she said. “They’ve helped me so much.” While it is never easy being homeless, she did say about Santa Cruz, “This is one place where you can live on the streets and never go hungry.”
Another local success story is that of realtor Tom Brezsny. Brezsny moved to Santa Cruz in 1978 with a few dollars and an undiagnosed anxiety condition. He self-medicated with alcohol and soon became an alcoholic.
“I couch-surfed, hotel-hopped, slept on the streets, stayed in the St. George hotel. I lived a series of lifestyles, in and out, angry,” Brezsny said. “I’d wake up and find myself in the street without remembering how I got there. I’ve been in places where you had to be careful where you stepped because of the hypodermic needles on the ground.”
Brezsny then got a job as a janitor at India Joze, a local restaurant.
“I initially took the job as a janitor because I could get drunk and do the work alone at night,” he said. However, after awhile things began to change. “Having a job was a foundation building block. It put money in my pocket and made me feel useful.”
He continued, “That was a significant turning point. It is an absolutely essential component in helping people integrate back into some level of mainstream normalcy — at least as far as society sees normal.”
Brezsny went on to become one of the owners of India Joze. Today he is a successful realtor.
The Bigger Picture
Success stories like Brezsny’s and Roberts’ show that re-assimilation is possible with the right resources. Whether it is permanent housing, drug and alcohol counseling, mental health services or employment training, resources provide a support system that is essential for remedying homelessness.
“We don’t want to spend money because we think it’s cheaper to let them be in the street than in a permanent place. We should be ashamed,” Stoops said.
As for now, nonprofits urge citizens to get involved.
“I believe in volunteerism,” Stoops said. “Homelessness will continue unless there is a movement from the grassroots up.”
Cole emphasized keeping an open mind about the issue.
“Students and tourists are transients, they’re temporary in the community,” he said, reiterating the fact that most of the Santa Cruz homeless are locals. “They [the homeless] ought to be able to call it home.”