As many of us watch with dismay over the situation at the encampment in San Lorenzo Park, our community needs to do more than the usual…
What is the usual?
o Push people away… knowing they will just end up right nearby.
o Scream at public officials for doing the wrong things
o Scream at public officials for not doing anything
o Scream at the “activists” for stirring things up
o Dismiss the worth of people in an encampment because there are some people there who are using drugs
o Assume there are reasons why almost every place unsheltered people camp is unsuitable
o Drop food and clothing off and then feel satisfied that this was enough
o City and County officials are out of sync on encampment issues
o Pretend that everything is fine in the encampments even as real troubles persist
o Assume that Santa Cruz is somehow uniquely failing on homelessness even as dozens of cities throughout California are wrestling with problems associated with encampments
Let’s try unusual things, instead.
A problem-solving mindset
Bringing key stakeholders together, perhaps with professional mediation/facilitation
Adopting approaches that bring incremental improvement even as we recognize that incremental improvement is not enough.
Thinking about the use of public lands and public spaces more broadly in the context of the twin health crises of massive unsheltered homelessness and the COVID 19 pandemic
Considering a lot of different needs and perspectives… not assuming “I have the answer”
Ending wishful thinking or magical thinking... as in “there is a simple solution”; or “it will fade away on its own”
Assuming that each one of us has a constructive role to play in meeting the challenge of homelessness
Taking my own advice, I will not pretend that I have “the answer.”
However, I do have a bunch of suggestions. Some are my own. Some are borrowed from others. Some are quietly in the works already. None are perfect. Still, I believe if our community adopted an approach along the lines outlined below, we’d have a better, healthier situation than we have today.
++ Accept and even embrace the fact that federal court ruling that says we can’t penalize people for sleeping outside in public places if there is insufficient emergency shelter. We have at least several hundred people sleeping outside right now and our shelter beds are all full.
++ Adopt the idea that no person sleeping outside should be asked to move away from a given location unless a viable alternative location is offered and made available
++Accept the idea that completely un-managed encampments virtually always develop significant problems as they grow and accumulate material
++ Accept the idea that public officials/employees have a right and even a duty to expect legal and safe behavior from people when they are in public spaces… and to intervene when behaviors become illegal and/or unsafe
++ Recognize that even a modest level of stability of location for people sleeping outside is a real benefit to everyone. (Builds community and relationships. Allows better connection with outreach workers. Creates more opportunity for collective responsibility to maintain a healthy, sanitary environment. Creates visibility and accountability.)
++ Recognize that keeping unsheltered people in a more settled place means less movement and less mixing of people… which is central to our efforts to limit the spread of COVID 19.
++ Acknowledge that there are scores of lightly used or unused public spaces that could be used to address this situation constructively
++ Accept that half a loaf is better than none… and that one slice is still better than none.
Now for some details about how this could play out…
+ Set some criteria for what kinds of public spaces will accommodate unsheltered individuals. (for instance, away from kids playgrounds, away from sensitive habitat, away from hazards)
+ Set limits on each location in terms of: number of tents allowed to set up there; distances between tents; number of people per tent site; size of site plots, etc.
+ Create simple rules modeled on “agreement camps” set of rules… but with additional rules required by the City. (Lots of emphasis on cleanliness and sanitation and health-conscious behavior.)
+ Install basic sanitation facilities (water, porta-potties, trash bins).
+ Arrange for both County outreach workers and other community outreach workers/programs to visit the location regularly and engage with residents on both improving lives and maintaining a healthy encampment. County housing and indoor shelter assistance shall be offered and provided as it is available.
+ Include some form of security monitoring for each location on a regular basis (every few hours?) and have SC police officers stop by each location at least once per day. Police visits should not be intrusive but police would not avoid confronting criminal problems at any encampment.
+ City negotiates with County and Homeless Action Partnership for funding for sanitation and security monitoring… City could agree to address trash collection and removal and cover that cost. While there are other important needs that need to be addressed with available homelessness funding, the need to provide basic health, safety and sanitation for unsheltered people can and should be a priority. (Note: I am a member of the Homeless Action Partnership governing board – which helps distribute state and federal homelessness funds locally. I would support making this a high priority.)
+ Require each encampment to relocate periodically… based on need for cleaning, reduction of material accumulation, and site restoration. Relocation could be quite nearby… just distant enough to ensure cleanliness and to reduce site damage.
Okay… I know I must have missed some important questions. But let’s not brush this approach aside. Let’s keep problem-solving if this approach needs more work or a smarter alternative.
For those of us reading this who don’t like the idea of being permissive at all on these semi-managed encampments… please remember that without them we will end up with more of what we’ve seen recently: completely unmanaged encampments with lots of big problems. (Please remember the federal ruling that we can’t completely do away with people camping in public spaces.)
For those of us reading this who don’t like the idea of creating any framework or rules on encampments… please remember that without them, we will end up with either more displacements and more encampments full of troubles and unsanitary conditions – and we won’t have broad community support for this effort.
For those of us reading this who don’t want to put energy and money into short-term responses that do not directly include housing… please remember that there are not nearly enough rental housing spaces available for these folks and most will not be housed this winter so we need to provide SOMETHING.
For those of us reading this who don’t want to put energy and money into an approach that doesn’t deliver more solid outcomes on substance addiction and mental health… please remember that settled encampments provide an opportunity for those offering treatment to make contact more easily. And for unsheltered individuals to experience a bit less stress in their daily lives—thereby improving their behavioral health.
For those of us who don’t want a permitted encampment near our homes or schools or businesses… please remember that we will end up with unpermitted camping near us in some form if we don’t have permitted, regulated encampments.
For those who want law enforcement to crack down on substance abuse in and around encampments… please remember that people will still remain on the streets after being cited or they will almost certainly return to the streets and drug use when leaving custody if there is nowhere for them to live. (…and jailing substance users is actually not effective anyway.)
I mentioned much earlier on my hope that everyone could have a constructive role in helping address homelessness and its impacts on everyone in our community. Now’s your chance.
Ø Support this kind of approach in the public discourse OR develop a different approach that will do a better job of improving the situation and then contribute your approach to the conversation.
Ø Talk to public officials. Thoughtfully and rationally.
Ø Support genuine affordable housing opportunities. If we solve lots of other problems people on the streets are having… but those folks still live outside, they are still homeless.
Ø Contribute to organizations that help improve the lives of people living outside and that help them find housing.
Ø Say YES to things that might be less than ideal for you but will help make things better for the community as a whole.
Ø Listen and learn…and then share your best ideas
Finally… I have spent years focusing most of my homelessness work on longer-term solutions with a heavy emphasis on housing. I cannot emphasize enough how important that is to me… And yet I find myself drawn to the immediate need for safe, healthy places for people living outside to sleep. I will never be pulled completely away from the long-term focus. But, as we move through the winter of this year, I hope we will all try to constructively address people’s needs right now.
(please feel free to share this post!)
[thank you to SK, RS, PK, S, and MN]