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Banning unsheltered people from city hall grounds at night and on weekends is a reactive move, not a proactive one. What else can be done in Santa Cruz?
The city manager in Santa Cruz, California, this week restricted access to public spaces adjacent to city hall on evenings and weekends in response to increased use of a courtyard, grassy area and walkways by the homeless.
Security costs and health concerns associated with the homeless on city hall grounds prompted the shift in rules. “We pretty much have to sanitize city hall all every day,” City Manager Martín Bernal said, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
While that might fix the immediate problems on site, it simply shifts the problem elsewhere and doesn’t necessarily help city hall’s relations with local homeless advocates, who criticize the controversial municipal ban on sleeping outside. The city has asked the county to boost mental health services outreach on city hall grounds, according to the Sentinel.
It’s the latest flashpoint in the challenges homelessness poses to local governments across the nation. It also comes on the heels of the Santa Cruz City Council releasing a new report with 20 recommendations to better address the homelessness challenges this scenic surf community about 30 miles south of San José faces.
While many of the recommendations are familiar from previous study efforts—including better coordination between the city and the county’s Health Services Agency, one of the new ideas to emerge, Good Times reported, is to look more closely at creating a local “navigation center,” like the one San Francisco has.
Navigation centers, a strategy also being pursued in Seattle, are shelters that also offer on-site support services, including for behavioral health and employment assistance.
The challenges are especially acute in Santa Cruz, which has an overall county population around 270,000 residents and an ongoing housing crisis that makes it difficult for people with lower incomes to hold on to what’s still affordable.
Looking at county-level statistics in the Golden State, Santa Cruz ranks fourth in the state for homeless residents per capita, following Mendocino and Humboldt counties, which are two mostly rural Northern California jurisdictions, and urban San Francisco, according to Good Times.
The collective resources across Santa Cruz County can only accommodate 58 percent of the unsheltered population, according to the report.
According to county’s 2015 point-in-time census, there were 1,964 homeless residents across the county with 831 living inside the city limits.
Of those counted across the county, 41 percent of those counted had a substance abuse disorder, 38 percent had a psychiatric condition, 33 percent had a chronic health condition and 24 percent had a post-traumatic stress condition.
Also according to the city’s report:
Among the counties, Santa Cruz County also matched the general trend for duration of homelessness. For Santa Cruz, and most of the other counties, the smallest group, around 10%, had been homeless for 30 days or less (Santa Cruz was 8%). From there, the percentage rose to about ~40-60% for 1-11 months in homelessness (Santa Cruz was 37%), with another ~40-60% reporting a duration of one year or longer (Santa Cruz was 56%). Santa Cruz County was highest among this set of counties in the percentage of homeless individuals with a history of foster care. Santa Cruz also had the highest percentage (15%) of homeless individuals under the age of 18. Most of the other counties had single-digit percentages.
That’s a daunting set of statistics that comes with no easy solutions—and restricting access to the grounds of city hall won't improve the larger homelessness problems.
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Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.