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  • Writer's pictureD Lane

In the short run, there are only three options…

[Preface: I have posted elsewhere on this blog about the very important work our local government, local nonprofits and local volunteers are doing to provide a better situation for hundreds of unhoused people in our county. Our community is providing a much larger amount of safe, healthy “accommodations” than ever before. Not only do I acknowledge this… I celebrate it. And our community’s longer-range planning and government reorganization to transform our homelessness response system are also moving in a very good direction. However, failure to successfully take on highly visible, short term challenges will undermine community support for long term solutions …]

As each of us who has been out and about lately has seen, the unsheltered homelessness crisis continues unabated in the Santa Cruz area. There are literally hundreds of people sleeping outside every night. (COVID and the fires are adding to this number.) Some are sleeping in managed situations and most are simply sleeping wherever they can find.

The folks sleeping in a managed situation are using portable restrooms, having access to some health services, keeping the site clean, following basic rules, keeping in regular touch with outreach workers and maintaining appropriate COVID distancing in their sleeping arrangements. They are causing little or no distress to their immediate neighbors nor to housed residents in general.

While many folks sleeping rough in unmanaged situations are doing okay in terms of distancing and cleanliness, many are not. There are large amounts of trash accumulating. There is little or no access to toilets, handwashing or potable water. There is much less contact with health and outreach workers. COVID distancing is often neglected. In most of these situations, there are no rules and no management at all and no stability. Most of these situations are causing real distress (and sometimes harm) to those in and around them.

There seem to be three options for our community in the short run (in the next 4 to 6 months).

1) We could find a little more indoor shelter for a modest fraction of the folks sleeping outside now and then simply maintain the status quo with unmanaged camping for everyone else. This would mean continued distress for almost everyone: poor health/sanitation/safety for unsheltered people; and continued distress for the housed community in terms of poor sanitation, trash accumulation and unmanaged campsites throughout the community.

2) We could violate a federal court ruling (Martin v. Boise) and try to use citations and jail to push people away or move them around. In addition to being illegal, we have seen time after time that this doesn’t do any good—people just relocate a few hundred yards away or they spend a brief time in jail (at great community expense) and then find a new spot to camp within walking distance.

3) We could create a substantial supply of managed camping in thoughtfully selected sites with all the positives that we currently see at the managed San Lorenzo River "Benchlands" encampment. (This kind of camping area was also successful at 1220 River Street last year with virtually no complaints from those living and working nearby.) Clean. Safer. Managed. Stable. Supportive services and housing connections more easily made. And, this would give both outreach workers and police a place to refer people to when they are camping in unhealthy or unsafe situations.

Here’s the bad news: many local public decision-makers seem to be headed toward choosing option one… and basically maintaining the “camping all over the place” status quo that is having very poor results for everyone.

Here’s the good news: You can tell your local officials that you want them to choose the smarter option three. Write to elected officials and tell them that you don’t want unmanaged camping scattered all over the place. Tell them you want people sleeping outside to have safe, healthy, managed places to go – and that you want that you want the safe, managed sites to be in thoughtfully-selected sites that will work for the housed and unsheltered residents in our community.

Here’s who you can write to:

Santa Cruz City Council: (this goes to all 7 councilmembers)

Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors:

[Feel free to craft your own message or borrow from mine or copy/paste mine.]

And… a few words word about how this short-term response fits in to the housing-focused approach that is truly the solution to homelessness.

I'll start with a well-known parable that is often told in both public policy and human services settings. It’s told in a variety of ways… here's a quick, borrowed version:

One summer in the village, the people in the town gathered for a picnic. As they shared food and conversation, someone noticed a baby in the river, struggling and crying. The baby was going to drown!

Someone rushed to save the baby. Then, they noticed another screaming baby in the river, and they pulled that baby out. Soon, more babies were seen drowning in the river, and the townspeople were pulling them out as fast as they could. It took great effort, and they began to organize their activities in order to save the babies as they came down the river. As everyone else was busy in the rescue efforts to save the babies, a few of the townspeople started to run away along the shore of the river.

"Where are you going?" asked one of the rescuers. "We need you here to help us save these babies!"

One of the runners replied, "We need you stay here and keep rescuing. And we are going upstream to stop whoever is putting them in!"

To me, the folks in this story pulling the babies out of the river are essential emergency services workers. And the people running up the river to stop the babies from entering the river are the longer-term problem solvers. In our homelessness crisis, both emergency response and longer-term solutions are essential. BOTH ARE ESSENTIAL. We need to do have some people do one task and some do the other. It’s hard work and it’s a lot of work—but the concept is really not complicated. (And, no, I’m not equating unhoused people with babies. It’s an analogy 😊)

Managed encampments are not a long-term solution to homelessness. Housing of some kind (with a roof!) is needed for each family and individual. But these will not materialize this winter. We need short term action as we work toward housing solutions.

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