February 21-28, 2007

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs


Two months ago, on Dec. 27, Nūz reported on the approximate number of homeless Californians. "On any given night, we have, statewide, some 360,000 homeless people sleeping outside," Janet Huston of Sacramento's Department of Housing and Community Development told Nūz. "And some 80,000 to 95,000 of them are children."

Well, thanks to the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County (CAB), we can now identify, at least approximately, how many of those are local. The numbers, and their breakdown, may surprise some.

For one thing, who's homeless has shifted.

For several decades, the largest single group of homeless were those tossed outside in the big bang of the 1980s. That's when, within just a few years, many mental hospitals closed, the Reagan administration abandoned public housing and Democrats ended tax credits for most apartment construction--in the name of ending "corporate welfare."

That triple whammy, which eliminated countless dwellings past and future, threw millions in their 20s and 30s, most of them single, into homelessness. Many have never recovered, have aged in place on the streets and are now in their 50s or early 60s, although they often appear a decade older due to illness and exposure.

The population mix has begun to shift, however. A few years ago, families with children began joining the older population on the streets. And now the phenomenon has hit a new population: youth.

While, according to sources cited in CAB's newly released report, entitled HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS IN SANTA CRUZ COUNTY--2007, "0.9% of households in Santa Cruz County have experienced homelessness at some time in 2005," CAB reports that the number rises to 3.6 percent for youth 18 to 24 years of age, who "were much more likely to have been homeless in the previous year." In short, youth are four times as likely to experiences homelessness as adults and families; one out of every 27 youth we see walking down the street has been homeless just in the last year.

In fact, the age range of the homeless population has shifted enough that now "more than half of homeless people were between the ages of 30 and 50, and more than half have children"--people who would otherwise be at the height of their lifetime earning power.

And, in fact, many are earning steady incomes. "One-third of homeless people are working," CAB's report notes, "and one-tenth are working full time." This is the same range of figures that shows up in Santa Clara County, where nearly 40 percent of shelter occupants are employed. Wages simply don't earn a month's rent, a month's deposit and other initial payments.

So how many homeless people, throughout Santa Cruz County, are we talking about? CAB cites a Community Assessment Project report that surveyed housed residents in April of 2006, which found that those "at the time of the survey who had experienced homelessness in the past year was close to 2,247." Adding that to the 3,371 found entirely homeless in a 2005 homeless census, "We can therefore project that 5,618 people may have been homeless at some time in the last year in Santa Cruz County."

Given a total county population of around 266,000, that puts the rate of homelessness at around 2 percent. Which, given the National Alliance to End Homelessness' estimate of a national rate of 0.3 percent, is around six times greater.

Which, in turn, brings up that most controversial question--the one most homeless providers hate to have asked, but the public insists on asking anyway--does the existence of a net of homeless services itself attract more homeless to the area?

The answer, while unclear, seems to tend toward the negative. Yes, notes CAB, "one in 10 cited their last permanent housing in another U.S. state." But that's only 10 percent of the homeless population. Contrarily, "more than two-thirds reported that their last permanent housing was in Santa Cruz County." What about length of residency? "Eighty-one percent have lived here for more than a year, and of those more than half said they had lived in Santa Cruz County for more than 10 years and 23 percent have lived here for more than twenty years." That of course doesn't tell us whether those here for decades have been homeless the entire time, but given that the average period of homelessness for most is two to six months, it's unlikely. In addition, "28.4 percent said that they grew up in Santa Cruz County."

In short, the homeless are neither, for the most part, careless invading newcomers, as is frequently claimed by those collectively critiquing them, nor part of the hypothetical hordes who allegedly "want to live here" badly enough to pour over the hill, under cover of darkness and with the blessing of demonic developers, in droves. The majority are, in fact, established community members.

So what explains the high percentage of people living in a state of homelessness in Santa Cruz County? Can the college town theory (lots of greenery and sympathetic students draw panhandlers), the tourism theory (spaced-out visitors drift in and stay) or the mild-weather theory (limited temperature changes aid survival) hold up to empirical scrutiny? Only the last one. Measurements of mean January temperature and homelessness rate do indeed show a correspondence between warmth and the homeless population.

There is, however, a far more significant reason for the high local level of homelessness, one which Harvard University's JOINT CENTER FOR HOUSING STUDIES states succinctly: "restrictive land use policies that limit the supply of affordable, higher-density multifamily rental housing."

So who's adopted such policies? Our county government has not only adopted, but often boasts about, having the most restrictive land use policies of any comparable California county. Given that it's the largest regulatory unit in the area, it's no surprise that the proportion of the county's homeless is one of the largest in the state.

In short, at its core, homelessness is not at all an inscrutable mystery. Its reasons are not complex. It is, as Berkeley housing experts Quigley, Raphael and Smolensky point out, a matter of "simple economic principles governing the availability and pricing of housing."

And therefore, "rather modest improvements in the affordability of rental housing or its availability can substantially reduce the incidence of homelessness."

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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