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Magnets and homelessness

Let’s talk about the “magnet theory” of homelessness in Santa Cruz County.


There’s a well-known idea around here that suggests that we attract lots of people experiencing homelessness to our area because we have particularly good homeless services. I’ve spent a fair amount of energy over my years working on homelessness trying to demonstrate why this idea is incorrect.

Today, I’m going to change my tune just a little bit.

I do mean just a little bit.


I’m pretty sure the way many people think about this magnet theory is incorrect... but there are a couple of related aspects of a magnet theory that do seem correct to me.

As you can probably tell, this post is going to be more complicated that my usual glib and witty posts. It’s going to take some time (and a good number of paragraphs!)


First let’s talk about the basic data:

1) Periodic local homeless census surveys over several years have consistently shown that more than two-thirds of those experiencing homelessness in our county were LIVING IN SANTA CRUZ COUNTY BEFORE THEY BECAME HOMELESS.

2) There is a little known data source called the Homeless Management Information System. All the clients that access more than a dozen local homelessness programs have registered in this system. (I had to do a special data request to access the following info...) Not every agency collects complete info from each client but from the clients that were fully registered (1125 individuals) showed the following: the last permanent address for 78% of those people was in Santa Cruz County. Only 22% were from outside the county... and almost half of those were from counties that are within 50 miles of ours. Only 5 percent came from outside the state.

3) The one survey (a survey done through a UCSC research project a few years ago) that showed a higher proportion of people from outside the area was done just in the city of Santa Cruz (not countywide) and was done just among the most visible people rather than being a random sample of the entire homeless population (which is what the homeless census and survey uses). In other words... this data is not very representative of the full reality of Santa Cruz County.

4) If one looks at similar homeless census data from other coastal counties in California, one will find a similar ratio of local and “not local” in those locations. In other words, to the extent Santa Cruz County has a “magnetic” effect; it’s not very different from many nearby counties. People experiencing homelessness don’t have a fixed residence and are more likely to move around than a person with a permanent home.

5) Santa Cruz County’s rate of shelter beds in relation to the number of people experiencing homelessness is very poor. In other words, we don’t have a high level of the most basic of homeless services: SHELTER. In other-other words, there is no reason for a person experiencing homelessness to come here for services because we don’t have anything special in that regard.


Soooo... I don’t think homeless services are attracting people from outside the county to our area an in any significant way and the evidence supports this conclusion.


However... there is a different magnet effect and it is worth acknowledging: When there are useful services relatively nearby, people will move around within the county to seek those services. This is clearly quite normal and, to my mind, desirable. We offer these services as a community because we want people to use them to improve their situation. Okay... I know this paragraph is stating what is fairly obvious. But it’s important to remember it because it fits with the reality that homeless individuals will be SEEN CONGREGATING in certain locations and not randomly scattered all throughout the county. We have to learn how to live with this, manage it well, and work to reduce the real and perceived impacts that this congregating creates.


The other magnet that needs to be recognized, which I have posted about earlier, is that some homeless people - along with lots of housed people - are attracted to Santa Cruz County for a lot of easy-to-see reasons that have nothing to do with the provision of homelessness services.


Are you asking “why does this matter?”


It’s not just an academic or data argument. The promoters of the main magnet theory use this theory to justify their argument that we should have fewer homeless services. (“If you build it, they will come... from everywhere else in the country.”) Their version of the theory is wrong and harmful. It will perpetuate the existing homelessness crisis on our streets. If embraced, it will mean that we will fail to serve people that need to be served to preserve their health and the health of our community as a whole.

I hope we will provide adequate services that will put people on a path out of homelessness and into housing... and that we will attract people from around our county to use those services while we work together as good neighbors.

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Don Lane
132 Van Ness Avenue, Santa Cruz, CA

Committee ID# 1423624

©2019 by Don Lane