by Steve Pleich
On May 9, the Santa Cruz City Council presented the Homeless Coordinating Committee Final Report, the product of six months of research and analysis by an ad hoc committee chaired by Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Chase.
Although this effort did yield several immediate and feasible options to address the condition of homelessness such as increasing access to showers, laundry, electronic device charging stations and storage space, it did little to create a framework within which many of the proposed actions can be implemented.
In my opinion, the creation of a Citizen’s Task Force on Homelessness is the next practical step in this process.
The task force model has been used in the recent past to address pressing community issues. This model should now be applied to our most challenging current issue, that of services and support for people experiencing homelessness.
Recent task forces have addressed public safety and water supply with differing degrees of success.
The recommendations of the public safety task force were widely viewed as either unwieldy or impractical and were virtually ignored by city staff. Although several of the recommendations may have worked some substantive good or needed change, the fact that very few were implemented rendered the overall effectiveness of that task force virtually nil.
The water supply task force, on the other hand, received broad support from both staff and the Water Department and has substantially contributed to a workable and sustainable plan to insure our future water supply. Said one water supply task force member, “Our task force effectively created direct access to the policy making process by bringing us into the room with agency heads and staff.”
Several things need to happen to create the opportunity for even modest success. First, the scope of the work must be broad enough to include both “housing first” and “shelter now” strategies. Indeed, the call for the creation of a year-round shelter (an item that was included in the report as a three to five year option) was a consistent theme of speakers at the May 9 session.
Dr. Paul Lee, who created the first local shelter and after whom the Paul Lee Loft at Homeless Services Center is named, said, “Virtually all the time, money and effort being applied to the issue of homelessness manifests itself in housing first models and many of the more substantive options offered in the committee report clearly reflected this approach. But, these models remain presently impractical in view of the lack of affordable housing locally. We need to keep our focus on shelter.”
Indeed, according to the 2015 Homeless Census and Survey, on any given night there are as many as 1,000 women, men and children unsheltered in Santa Cruz and those close to that process believe these numbers will rise in the recently completed biannual homeless census. Clearly, the need for shelter in our community is paramount and must be recognized and addressed.
Second, the composition of such a task force must reflect those segments of our community most profoundly impacted by this issue and include stakeholders whose participation can insure post-task-force success.
This was an issue also raised by several speakers at the May 9 council session who wondered aloud “why service providers and members of the homeless community were not included nor consulted in the preparation of the report.”
Task Force membership must include the faith community, neighborhood groups, local business leaders and retailers, representatives from nonprofits which primarily serve people experiencing homelessness, advocates for the homeless and, of course and most importantly, members of our local homeless community.
Finally, it is crucial that the task force have an early “sunset” date. Says Housing NOW Santa Cruz founder Linda Lemaster, “The previous report of a decade ago simply languished into inaction and the many good options included in that report were never developed. We can’t let that happen again.”
Although we don’t want to rush to judgment on such an important issue, the plight of people experiencing homelessness is nothing if not emergent. We must strategize thoughtfully, but we must also act with all deliberate speed if we are to see substantive options generated and implemented in a time frame that reflects the importance and urgency of the situation.
The efficacy of the Committee’s Final Report will, as with all things, be most accurately assessed in hindsight. Let’s hope council’s foresight is as prescient with the creation of a task force to make sure that both the letter and the spirit of that report are fully implemented.
Steve Pleich is a Santa Cruz resident and advocate for people experiencing homelessness.