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Who’s responsible for homelessness?

There’s certainly no dearth of somewhat stupid statements being made about homelessness locally and it will take me a year to cover them all. But one is particularly damaging right now... the idea that it’s really the county government’s responsibility to address homelessness because they are designated by the state constitution as the deliverer of “human services.” This is only half right – which means it’s also half wrong. Certainly the county provides conventional social services and health services to people in need. Some medical clinics, some mental health services, some substance abuse programs, some resources for food and minimal income. I emphasize the “some” because what the state provides to counties for this is typically inadequate in relation to the community need. So if homelessness and assisting people that are experiencing homelessness were only addressed by these county operated programs, we could correctly say it’s a “county responsibility.” HOWEVER... as we all know, the key solutions to homelessness (both interim and long-term) involved shelter and housing in various forms. City governments in our California system have at least as much responsibility in these two areas as county governments. The county government does not make any decisions about city housing and homeless shelter policy. Though we are at a fairly low point right now, historically cities have had direct funding sources to build affordable housing. Cities make their own zoning and planning rules about affordable housing. Cities make decisions about permits for emergency shelters. Beyond the housing/shelter policy area, cities do their own policing and maintain their own public spaces (especially parks and open space). And while cities (especially smaller cities like Santa Cruz) do not typically operate human services programs, it is very common for cities to provide public funding for human service programs that meet the particular needs of their communities. (Senior programs, nutrition programs, child care programs, etc.)

If all that weren’t enough to make the point that homelessness is not just a county responsibility, consider this one: Almost all the funds that the state and federal government provide to our area for homelessness flows through an entity called the Homeless Action Partnership. This is an organization that has representation from local service providers, community organizations, community advocates, city governments and county government. In other words, the primary funding entity for addressing homelessness in Santa Cruz County is not our county government. It is a partnership that includes all the local government jurisdictions and many others. The county government is a leader in this partnership but our local cities (including the City of Santa Cruz) have played a significant role in the Homeless Action Partnership for many years.

What is not stupid is for all of us to work together at every level. Looking to “someone else” to take care of a shared concern and a shared responsibility probably is.


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Don Lane
132 Van Ness Avenue, Santa Cruz, CA

©2019 by Don Lane