by Jacob Pierce on Oct 23, 2012
City leaders have been working on changes to the Homeless Services Center on Coral Street and other areas. (Chip Scheuer)
When Charles Edwards, a mentally ill homeless man from San Francisco, stabbed Camouflage co-owner Shannon Collins on Ocean Street in May, he sent shockwaves through the Santa Cruz community.
“Everyone felt so much pressure to act,” Rowland Rebele says of the intense debate over the city’s homeless problem that arose after Collins’ murder.
Rebele, a philanthropist serving on the Homeless Services board, was not involved in the eight resulting proposals put forth in the aftermath. Those came from three city councilmembers and Homeless Services Director Monica Martinez. But he sees where the suggestions coming from.
“It’s understandable,” he adds “that things would get put forth and not fleshed out.”
The Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum last week at which Martinez discussed with local business owners some of Homeless Services’ efforts—among them, Project 180/180, aimed at aiding the most at-risk homeless. Bill Tyselling, the chamber’s executive director, was impressed at the strong support shown for the program.
“I really believe what we’re talking about is making a fundamental change in what we’re doing about the chronically homeless population,” Tysseling says. “And that’s definitely a conversation worth having.”
Indeed, five months after Collins’ death, some of the proposals laid out for homeless services and public safety seem to have panned out well:
The newly expanded Homeward Bound Program has in the past two months given over two dozen homeless individuals one-way bus tickets to areas where they have family.
This summer, the city partnered with county mental health workers to expand the MOST program, which provides services for the mentally ill.
Martinez began meeting regularly with a designated police officer in an attempt to strengthen communication with law enforcement.
But other proposals on the May list have not proved so cut-and-dry.
Take, for example, the promise not to “support any new homeless service facilities” and instead pressure nearby jurisdictions to share that responsibility. It’s an intriguing idea, but one without any teeth. City councils don’t have the authority to keep out shelters, so long as those facilities meet planning codes, thanks to the Housing and Supportive Services Bill signed into law by then-governor Schwarzenegger in 2007.
Councilmember Ryan Coonerty says he, along with fellow councilmember Lynn Robinson and vice mayor Hilary Bryant, mostly wanted to pressure other nearby areas to step up.
“We have a lot of facilities in Santa Cruz,” Coonerty says. “What we’re telling folks is that if there are proposals, we expect other jurisdictions in our community to take on theirs first.”
Santa Cruz is home to the county’s health building, courthouse and jail. Depending on the time of year, the city has between three and five shelters, some of them for families.But it’s worth noting the county’s newest homeless shelter is a facility in Live Oak for veterans, and there are also two homeless shelters in Watsonville.
Another proposal that’s been difficult to implement is one in which councilmemberssaid they would work with property owners of public housing to screen tenants for criminal history. It’s proving to be easier said than done.
“That one is legally complicated,” Coonerty says, “and we’re trying to figure out what we can and can’t do with property owners.”
Yet another provision that seems to have hit a dead end asked the county jail to return prisoners to their community of origin, upon completion of their sentence. It would, first of all, be no easy task to begin with, given the fiscal realities in the county.
Also, Chief Deputy Jim Hart of the Sherriff’s Office Corrections Bureau says the jail doesn’t typically have prisoners getting stranded at the front steps with no one to pick them up. Most are from Monterey or Santa Clara Counties, if not here in Santa Cruz. He hopes many stragglers, when there are any, could be picked up by the recently expanded Homeward Bound program.
“It’s not necessarily the jail’s responsibility to give a ride home,” Hart says. “Most of the people are able to set that up themselves.”
Some of the proposals are still in the works. For example, if the county begins sharing lists of offenders who fail to appear in court, Coonerty hopes the city attorney will be able to prosecute them under the repeat offender law.
“The problems we’re trying to solve are not easy problems,” Coonerty says. “And so many of these are lot larger than the city of Santa Cruz—mental health issues, issues with the jail system. We were trying to address common problems about system [with these proposals], and I think we’ve gotten most of them.”