Is it stupid to look the other way?
In my many years of work on homelessness in Santa Cruz County, I have often suggested that the starting point for our community members’ truly grappling with homelessness is to not “look away” when we encounter people living on the street. I think we have to recognize the very real and concrete challenges people are facing and not pretend they do not really exist.
But today, I want to change my tune – at least a little bit.
Today, just about everyone (from highway drivers to levee bikers and walkers) are looking right at homelessness and people living outside at the Ross encampment. And this has had an unfortunate impact on our community’s response to homelessness. It is something close to panic.
And yet there is no evidence that there are more people experiencing homelessness in the Santa Cruz area than there were before the encampment appeared. IMHO, most of the folks at the Ross camp were just camping in random places in the vicinity and were much less visible.
But the problems were just the same. Whether in a big encampment or behind a bush in park, unsheltered people are very vulnerable in terms a wide range of health and safety problems. (For instance, the Ross camp did not turn people into substance users. Pretty much everyone at the camp with substance use problem arrived there with that problem. Yes, the camp has exacerbated some serious public health problems but it has also created more safety and stability for some of the folks staying there.)
So... why am I talking about looking away? Because, as we make decisions as a community about how to deal with so many people experiencing homelessness, I think we would do well to look a bit less at the Ross camp and look at the entire picture of homelessness. Though many disagree about the specific numbers, there seems to be consensus that there are easily more than 2000 people experiencing homelessness today in our county. And there seems to be about 150 people living at the Ross camp. Would it be smart to make our decisions about homelessness based on what’s happening with 7 or 8 percent of the homeless population? Or should we look at all the folks that aren’t in a visible place – the other 92 percent – and think about the best approaches to address the wide range of situations these individuals and families face?
The main crisis is not 150 living at the Ross camp. It’s the more than 2000 people living without a place to call home.