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Resolving homelessness: The need for both temporary shelter and affordable housing in Santa Cruz

There’s no question that more affordable housing is needed to resolve homelessness in Santa Cruz County. But a greater supply of emergency shelter — safe places where people experiencing homelessness can stay temporarily — is also needed. Homelessness advocates say that investing in both emergency shelter and affordable housing is important, and that approaches to ending homelessness need to incorporate both.

Shelters aren’t the solution to homelessness, but that doesn’t mean they’re not needed.

— Evyn Robles, Director of Campus and Housing for Housing Matters

“Shelters aren’t the solution to homelessness, but that doesn’t mean they’re not needed,” said Evyn Robles, Director of Campus and Housing for Housing Matters, during a community presentation held at the Capitola Library in February.

The presentation, organized by Housing Matters, was part of the Neighbors for Neighbors program, a series of discussions intended to both educate and hear from county residents on issues relating to homelessness. These action-driven meetups aim to build solution-oriented attitudes and initiatives in Santa Cruz County neighborhoods.

“It’s really hard to function if you don’t have somewhere safe to sleep at night,” Robles said, who spoke about the basic stability that’s needed as a first step to the often daunting process of finding permanent housing.

Housing Matters offers temporary emergency shelter for families with children in its Rebele Family Shelter, shelter for single adults in its Loft Shelter, and respite after a hospital stay in its Recuperative Care Center.

In fact, Housing Matters recently increased capacity for the Loft to accommodate a total of 57 adults, which includes a dorm-style shelter and 40 free-standing “pallet” sleeping cabins. The Rebele Family Shelter can accommodate up to 100 occupants at a time. Housing Matters’ Recuperative Care Center is another on-campus emergency shelter that can accommodate up to 24 adults who are recovering from illness or injury following treatment at a medical facility.

But getting a shelter bed at Housing Matters — which prioritizes highly vulnerable individuals — can take anywhere from a few months or longer, Robles said. There’s also the possibility that some people will never be prioritized for emergency shelter.

Robles explained there is a countywide effort to divert people from shelters, which are frequently full, by helping them problem solve with outreach workers and housing “connectors” in real time. Often, these efforts center around helping people reconnect with family or friends, securing funds to move into housing, or removing other barriers to housing.

The County’s 2023-2024 strategic framework for addressing homelessness calls for emergency shelter stays to average 60 days instead of several months, a goal intended to create more flow through the shelter system. The framework also sets a goal that 40% of emergency shelter guests are successfully rehoused during that time.

Housing Matters, said Robles, is close to meeting both goals on its campus, but “there’s no shelter that I know of that you can just show up to, same-day.” Residents who attended the library meetup in February found this fact disheartening.

“I’m dumbfounded that we don’t have an emergency [drop-in] shelter for people in desperate need,” said attendee Katey Kennedy, who lives in Aptos. In the meeting, Kennedy recounted a story of a young man she had encountered outside a grocery store on an exceptionally cold evening. After numerous phone calls to various county agencies, she couldn’t find anywhere for the man to shelter for the night, as he hugged his dog for warmth.

 

“It’s really hard to see someone suffer like that,” said Kennedy, who ultimately booked a motel room for the man and his dog. “I think we have a real hole here” in how we as a community are approaching homelessness, Kennedy continued.

We’re so focused on finding long-term solutions to homelessness, but how is that supposed to work when we don’t have anywhere for people to go in the short-term to start getting help?

— Katey Kennedy, Aptos resident

Another resident at the library meetup, Mary — who herself experienced more than a decade of homelessness earlier in her life (and asked that her last name not be used) — pointed out that navigating the various shelter options and housing programs can be difficult for someone living on the streets.

“Everything feels overwhelming because you’re in survival mode,” she said.

Robles explained that, at Housing Matters, the goal is to create a working relationship with shelter participants which ultimately leads to ending their homelessness, a goal that takes time to accomplish.

“Securing housing unfortunately does not happen in one meeting,” she said. “We want to develop a rapport with people so that each conversation we have is productive, and we don’t want to have to ask people to leave each morning, not knowing if they will return.”

Santa Cruz County’s plan to increase shelter capacity countywide from 352 to 600 beds in 2023 is expected to increase the cost of emergency shelter services to an estimated $22 million annually.

As of the last Point-in-Time count, conducted in February 2022 — this year’s PIT count took place on Feb. 23, but the data is not yet available — there were 2,299 people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz County. Of those, 1,774 were unsheltered. Robles said Housing Matters helped permanently house 317 individuals in 2022, with many of them — about 30% — participants in Housing Matters’ housing programs and campus services.

While Robles stressed the great need for more affordable housing and permanent supportive housing countywide, she noted the important role emergency shelter plays in providing the stability needed to forge a path out of homelessness.

“I’ve seen amazing things start with just a shower and having someone to talk to,” she said.

The Neighbors for Neighbors library meetup ended with residents deciding to focus the group’s advocacy efforts around community-driven emergency shelter solutions, with more discussion planned for the next library meetups.

Mer Stafford, Housing Matters’ Chief Initiative Officer, summed up the discussion with the observation that both emergency housing and long-term housing are needed in combination.

“As solutions, the two aren’t mutually exclusive,” she said. “The housing crisis is complex and multifaceted, and community discussions like this are a powerful way to get to the heart of this issue. That’s why the Neighbors for Neighbors initiative is so vital for Santa Cruz County, creating spaces for neighbors — both housed and unhoused — to listen to one another and work together on finding solutions.”

To take part in the Neighbors for Neighbors ongoing programming, visit housingmatterssc.org for upcoming dates.

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Claudia Graziano Burgin is a Santa Cruz-based freelance writer who specializes in writing about community issues, and for local nonprofits.