Old...and perhaps less stupid?
No, I'm not talking about myself! Several years ago, I wrote a letter to a citizens' committee working on local public safety issues (and homelessness!) While it is dated, it isn't too stupid... and many of the issues are still timely. (Remember that old saying: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Pretty smart!) What might be stupid about this post is that it's way too long for a typical blog post. Still, I hope you will take a few extra moments to read this it:
Dear Members of the City Public Safety Task Force,
First, allow me to offer my thanks to each of you for your service and hard work on the difficult issues before you.
I am prompted to write because I read a newspaper account of Judge Ari Symons’s comments to your Task Force decrying the number of people who seem to be attracted to Santa Cruz and cause problems here. There was no small irony in the Sentinel article on her comments – as the article noted that Judge Symons had herself been attracted to move to Santa Cruz from another community about 15 years ago. It certainly begs the question of why she and I and so many other local residents came to Santa Cruz from somewhere else. (Local survey data suggests that most of the housed adults presently living in the City of Santa Cruz came here from somewhere else and most of our current city councilmembers moved to Santa Cruz from elsewhere.)
With issues of crime and homelessness and drug use at the forefront of your deliberations and a leading topic of community conversation—and with a renewed conversation on our community’s perceived tolerance and generosity of human services as the key attracting factors for these woes, I thought I’d offer an additional perspective.
My primary purpose is to suggest some additional ideas for you to explore as you deliberate on recommended solutions. I’ve lived in Santa Cruz for forty years, have been quite involved in a wide range of community issues, and have been a close observer of community discourse on these issues. A good portion of that discourse plays itself out in communications directed at me as a city councilmember and as a person active in homelessness issues. I’ve had a chance to observe a lot.
Let me start by plainly stating that I agree with the premise that Santa Cruz has more people living “on the street” than communities of similar population and that our crime rate is higher than cities with a similar number of residents. It is also seems to me that the level of injection drug use is higher than communities of similar population though I don’t know that there is much clear data on this point.
Some folks explain our situation by simply saying that we are too tolerant and too generous with our services. I don’t think we can settle for the simplicity of this explanation. To me, the reasons for this set of problems are complex and plentiful. I believe it would be a mistake to single out just one or two and assume that addressing those couple of things would significantly change our situation. Here are some of the reasons I see. (Thanks are due here to the many individuals who have contributed ideas to this list. )
1) Santa Cruz is on the west coast, along a route that has for decades been traveled by younger people. We are historically a strong link in a chain that connects places like Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, Big Sur, San Francisco, Berkeley, Arcata, and the Pacific Northwest cities of Eugene, Portland and Seattle. For better or for worse, traveling young adults and wanderers have long been a part of our community reality. It is worth considering that many middle-aged homeowners experienced this kind of traveling as normal and even cool when they were young—that is, hitting the road for a while to discover America (or some other distant land)— but no longer accept younger travelers who look different and use different drugs than the travelers of their generation.
2) Recession or no recession, rental housing prices are very high here- among the highest in the country. When people have significant misfortune here and lose their housing, it is very expensive to get back in. So there is often a longer period that people have to endure homelessness before they bounce back…or they don’t bounce back because the hurdle is so high. (This, of course, raises the fair question of why a person or a family in this situation doesn’t leave. My brief response: some do and some don’t. The reason some stay – again, homeless people and poor people are in most ways just like everyone else—is that they have roots here or they have family and key personal connections. Most have familiarity with and affection for this community. These family and personal connections are especially important reasons to stay -- these can help a person survive and/or rise out of homelessness. And let’s not forget that more than two thirds of homeless individuals in Santa Cruz County lived in housing in our county before becoming homeless.)
3) We have a tremendous amount of public open space with lots of places to remain relatively invisible. And a good portion of it is pretty close to the center of town. Consider the San Lorenzo River corridor for starters. And Pogonip and Arana Gulch. And cliffs along the coast. The City of Santa Cruz has more park rangers than ever and more private security officers working in some of our public spaces but our more than 2000 acres of open space will continue to provide many hidden places for homeless people to camp. (A friend of mine recently pointed out that virtually every city with a river channel running through it will find homeless people congregating along the river.) We also have a couple of very lightly used railroad lines running through populated areas of our community. These tend to be a magnet for social problems and nuisance issues.
4) We have a widespread culture of acceptance of drug use that seems to cut across almost all socio-economic and demographic categories. I believe this begins with a fairly strong, widespread belief that marijuana should be legal. And there is a smaller number (but still a substantial number) of people in our community who think all drugs should be legalized. This leads to a confusing community ethic related to drugs in general. (For instance: “We don’t want our kids to get messed up by drugs but it seems some drugs like pot are okay.”) This mixed message is pretty widely disseminated to young people growing up in this community. Anyway, I believe this broad community attitude contributes to the situation that drugs of all kinds are fairly commonplace and, therefore, some homeless “travelers” find Santa Cruz an attractive place to indulge and even to trade in drugs. It is also worth noting that being an attractive tourist town means we have a lot of people coming here to have a good time. This also contributes to the bigger market for illegal drugs. But remember that this is not just about people on the street. This market operates far beyond the visible street population. I’m sure I will offend someone when I say this but I think it’s important to recognize that some of our local subcultures such as the awesome surfing community and the vibrant arts community and our brilliant UCSC community have drugs present at a significant level.
5) Santa Cruz has an unusually high level of outlets selling alcohol—much higher than communities of similar population. The leadership of the Santa Cruz police department has been shining a light on this issue for years—mainly because they see how much late night violence in Santa Cruz is both fueled by alcohol and occurs in proximity to alcohol outlets (especially bars and clubs). It is not apparent to most people in the community (because most of us do not hang out in the vicinity of bars and club late at night) that our police department resources are most heavily mobilized late at night on Fridays and Saturdays. Though we might wish it otherwise (for instance, that the SCPD would be patrolling our neighborhoods more to prevent property crime) the police really do have to make violence against persons their top priority—and this means they have to focus on Friday and Saturday nights near the bars and clubs and other alcohol outlets. And the folks who populate these alcohol-oriented night spots are not just locals… we have the most lively club scene in the region and people from well outside our city limits are a large part of our downtown and beach area population on Friday and Saturday nights.
6) The general respect for human rights and the rule of law around our community means that most of us don’t expect our law enforcement agencies to surreptitiously drive homeless people away (notwithstanding the claims of some “homeless advocates.”). The laws we have on the books here are not particularly tolerant in relation to homeless people (again, consider our camping and sitting and panhandling ordinances and how vigorously these have been enforced of late) but the practical and reasonable way our police enforce those laws are generally in keeping with our community values. (One could say that having police officers that follow the law means that we are being too tolerant but this is a dangerous and slippery slope that we must avoid. Also, we should note that the vigorous enforcement of the local camping ordinance has not done anything to reduce homelessness or the problems it contributes to. Instead, it has simply moved people around town so that different areas and neighborhoods experience the community impacts and realities of homelessness.)
7) We have a downtown (and a community) that is significantly populated by students and young adults and tourists. This plays a big role as to why both homeless and non-homeless panhandlers do their “collecting” activity downtown and a few other commercial areas. Students and other young adults and tourists (who don’t see the same panhandlers day in and day out) seem to be more likely to give money to panhandlers. Panhandlers (homeless or not) go where they have success in getting people to give. It seems clear that downtown Santa Cruz is currently one of those places. (Whether we like it or not, government regulation alone will not stop individuals from performing acts of generosity though “alternative to panhandling” educational programs could have some impact.)
8) Santa Cruz is the “county seat” (home of our county government) for this county and, though a relatively small city, is still a “central city” for our region. Our County Jail is in the center of the City of Santa Cruz and people with little or no financial means are released into the middle of Santa Cruz on a daily basis. Many of our region’s social services are in or near downtown Santa Cruz. Poorer people including homeless people need to engage these services in order to survive so they are more concentrated in this area. (It is possible that these services and activities could be moved elsewhere…but this “elsewhere” is never defined. Nobody seems to want these services near them.)
9) We almost certainly have more homeless individuals and “travelers” visible on our streets (compared to many other places) for essentially the same reasons tourists flock here –and for the same reasons housed people pay high prices and rents to live here. We have a very attractive community with a mild and pleasant climate and a unique local culture. Our community spends millions of dollars every year to publicize what a wonderful place Santa Cruz is. The “Santa Cruz” name is seen around the world in nationally-popular product logos. Homeless residents and homeless travelers who hang out on the street are more like the rest of us than some people care to recognize. A nice climate and a coast and open spaces and a creative cultural scene are also attractive to backpack-toting travelers and homeless people with the capacity to travel.
10) Many cities and towns we are often compared to are not really urban centers in the full sense of the term. The city of Santa Cruz is an urban center. The city of Santa Cruz is a regional transportation hub with the county’s main transit center and the county’s only regional (Greyhound and Amtrak) bus station. It is one of the primary employment centers and high-density (relatively affordable) housing centers in our region. We have a commitment—as pretty much all urban centers do—to have a mixed income population. Though we are not all that successful, there is a real effort to have housing for a workforce that includes many relatively low-paid service workers. (To me, this is not an issue of tolerance—it is one of being a responsible community that tries to shoulder a decent share of its responsibility to the region’s lower paid workers and lower income residents. These folks need places in our society and in our communities—urban centers (large and small) are usually the right places for these individuals.)
11) We do have a “transient” problem but it is much bigger than homelessness. Transient means coming to a place for only a brief or temporary stay. A large number of homeless persons in Santa Cruz are not “transient” – they’ve been here a long time (housed or not). Others truly are transient. However there is an even larger number of people in Santa Cruz who are not homeless but they are “transient.” We have more than fifteen thousand students living in the Santa Cruz area whose stay here will be brief or temporary. Every year, we have hundreds of thousands of people coming into Santa Cruz for a month, a week, a day, or a few hours. They are usually referred to as tourists. Why do I bring students and tourists into this discussion? Because these transient populations have fewer ties to this community and have less “ownership” in the community. They contribute in important ways but they also create a situation of less accountability and more anonymity. They feel more “cut loose” as they are away from home and away from neighbors and family that know them.
Yes, we have free meal programs around here for poor people and some of these meals are consumed by the scruffy “travelers” that many wish would disappear. But my own experience in dealing with homeless services suggests that many of the travelers do not use any homeless services at all and many others only use them quite infrequently. This is why I think it’s a stretch to assume that services are the central reason (or even a key reason) for our high street population.
For those who don’t remember or didn’t know, let me mention a bit of history that demonstrates my point. About 40 years ago, when there was no daily meal program at the Homeless Services Center or at the St. Francis Soup Kitchen (these did not even exist at that time), local government commissioned a formal report on the “undesirable transient element” in Santa Cruz. About thirty years ago, a related study was conducted by a UC professor (in conjunction with local government) looking at the “street people” situation in Santa Cruz. I mention these to make the point that there were lots of people living on the street right here in Santa Cruz even when there was very little in the way of formal services for homeless people and for other people living on the street.
If we reduce these kinds of services now, we will almost certainly see more people seeking food outside restaurants, in trash cans and at improvised meal projects in or near Downtown. It will be the worst of both worlds: there will not be any significant reduction in the numbers of people on the street and they will be even more visible in places like Downtown and other commercial and residential areas. And they will not be accessing any services that could lead to an improvement in their situation.
As I wrap up, a word about comparing the crime and homelessness rates of Santa Cruz to other communities of similar census populations. I would suggest we ask ourselves this series of questions about “comparable” cities and towns…particularly focusing on whether or not the city used in comparison has all or most of these characteristics.
Does it have a large university that makes up more than a quarter of the population?
Does it have a huge influx of tourists (in relation to the resident population) on a frequent basis?
Does it have a tourism industry that serves the full range of socio-economic classes (as opposed to just a higher end visitor base)?
Is it the region’s largest and most urbanized city with a real mix of socio-economic classes?
Is it the county seat with the county jail and other county service agencies?
Does it have something like two thousand acres of open space and a river corridor and a nearly vacant rail line within the city limits?
Does it have an unusually high rate of alcohol outlets including several regional club/entertainment venues?
Is there a local culture that embraces drug use (legal and illegal) at a level well above average?
Does it have a long-time and widely-known reputation as a cool, hip town attractive to people traveling on a shoestring?
Comparisons with communities that have two or three of these factors but not all (or almost all) of them means that those communities are not, in fact, comparable. All of these factors are real and need to be reckoned with. Simple explanations like “we’re too tolerant” or unsubstantiated assertions like “we are a paradise for homeless services” are appealing for many people but do not stand up to scrutiny. As we seek to address complex social problems in Santa Cruz, we need to take a hard look at the whole package of what makes up this community—for better or for worse.
And it is not hard to see that many of these factors I’ve mentioned are woven into excellent characteristics of the community-- characteristics that we probably don’t want to change. For instance, do we want to eliminate public access to our community open spaces or even sell it off? Do we want the University to disappear along with its 3000 jobs for local residents? Do we want to resist having a vibrant arts culture? Do we want to discourage the tourism industry from thriving by reducing their efforts to attract visitors? Clearly, there are many complex, interwoven factors at work and I don’t envy our assignment of sorting through all of them to come up with practical recommendations.
Whatever our community decides in relation to these issues, I hope we will all consider these possible factors AND keep this basic scientific principle in mind: correlation is not the same as causation. For those not familiar with this foundational principle of scientific research, here’s a quick example I borrowed from Wikipedia to explain.
Assumption: As ice cream sales increase, the rate of drowning deaths increases sharply. Therefore, ice cream consumption causes drowning.
This example fails to recognize the importance of time and temperature in relationship to ice cream sales. Ice cream is sold during the hot summer months at a much greater rate than during colder times, and it is during these hot summer months that people are more likely to engage in activities involving water, such as swimming. The increased drowning deaths are simply caused by more exposure to water-based activities, not ice cream. The stated conclusion is false.
It is theoretically quite possible that we have a larger population of poor people living on the street because we have services for those people. However, it is also equally possible we have those services because we have a substantial population of people in need of services. And we probably have that larger population because of some combination of the eleven factors I mentioned above.
I believe we’d do well to remember these words of wisdom from a pundit of another age as our community digs into its problems: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” Let’s not just find an answer...let’s find the right answer.
Again, thank you very much for your service... and for your consideration of the ideas presented in this letter.