Up a winding road lined with Eucalyptus trees in DeLaveaga Park, a lot of 15 RVs sit at the top of a forested hill. Potted plants surround the door of some trailers, with one trailer boasting a “Just Married” sign on its windshield.
The park is full of life, but it’s no vacation.
Current residents of city-funded Santa Cruz Free Guide’s RV Park followed different paths to get here, but they are chasing the same goal: to end their journey with homelessness.
“People don’t take chances on people like us,” says Jody Ann Conway, one of the first residents to park in the RV lot when it was established in August of 2022. “But I didn’t think I was going to be homeless.”
After losing her home and job as a caregiver in Gilroy, Conway moved to Santa Cruz to be closer to her parents and grandchildren. For three months, she lived in a brand new RV, but one night at 3am, the city of Santa Cruz impounded it, along with most of her belongings.
Having a safe space for her new trailer and possessions is a huge relief and has allowed her to get a job and focus on ending her homelessness.
“If people take the opportunity that’s here and venture out and know that their stuff is safe, it really is the first step,” she says.
Approximately 2,300 people are experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz County as of 2022, according to that year’s point-in-time (PIT) count, a limited one-day sweeping survey of the unhoused population. The RV Park and the adjoining Overlook Emergency Shelter at the National Guard Armory are among the Santa Cruz City government’s many efforts to reduce this number.
In 2017, the Homelessness Coordinating Committee, a city council subcommittee, spent six months formulating a report outlining goals to alleviate homelessness locally.
The plan laid out 16 short-term and four long-term goals to be completed in five or more years. The list includes year-round shelters, day services, more permanent housing and a “navigation center” that houses all resources needed under one roof.
Now, nearly six years later, some long-term goals are underway, and some are yet to be realized. The city has continued to assess the needs of the unhoused community and how they have shifted over the years and through the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to a new Homelessness Response Action Plan written in 2022. But at the core of both the 2017 and 2022 projects is the same message: city governments can’t tackle homelessness alone and must partner at the county, city, state and federal levels to form long-term solutions.
Larry Imwalle, Santa Cruz City’s Homeless Response Manager, says the city’s increased role in homelessness response is a relatively new expectation that historically fell on the county and state.
“If cities are going to continue to play these roles, they need to be resourced in a way they haven’t been previously,” Imwalle says. “At every level, the investment needs to be commensurate with the statewide crisis we’re seeing.”
In 2021, the city received $14.5 million to address local homelessness, funding new projects and expansions of proven ones. Newer city-supported shelters like the Overlook Community Emergency Shelter and the River Street Transitional Camp have added 165 new beds to the city’s year-round capacity.
“I think that demonstrates what we’re able to accomplish when we have resources,” Imwalle says.
These efforts correspond to the report’s goal to establish year-round shelters for people experiencing homelessness rather than ones that only operate during the winter. The city provides targeted casework and services at each location to move people toward permanent housing.
But despite the improvements, it’s simply not enough for the number of people seeking shelter.
Housing Matters, a leading local nonprofit aimed at reducing homelessness in Santa Cruz County, hosts a campus of shelter and services for Santa Cruz’s unhoused community. It provides 160 more beds and day services like restrooms, showers and charging stations.
Housing Matters was essential to Conway’s story, helping her rent her first apartment in Santa Cruz. After she was hospitalized for an infection in her hand, a nurse coordinated for her to stay in one of the 12 beds offered at The Recuperative Care Center, a joint effort between the county and Housing Matters for homeless individuals requiring medical respite.
Then Conway was connected to a caseworker and CalWORKs’ Housing Assistance Move-in Program, which is paying for her to move into her new apartment. Wings Homeless Advocacy, a partner nonprofit in the county, is providing her bed and essential household supplies.
Conway is also one of 295 households to receive an emergency housing voucher in the county after proactively applying back in 2012, she says. The program targets those moving out of—or at risk of becoming—homeless. The county housing authority pays 70% of her rent, so she is only responsible for 30%, which she earns at her job at the Homeless Garden Project.
While Conway was able to use the local resources at her disposal, she knows her situation is unique. The waitlists for the RV park and housing vouchers are long and unreliable, and many of Conway’s successes came from chance interactions.
“I really just got lucky,” she says. “I feel like it was just knowing the right people and chance moments.”
The city has purchased the property next to Housing Matters on Coral Street to provide services to more people. The property will be home to a 120-unit supportive housing project that includes ground-floor medical offices, a “navigation center,” a shelter and a one-stop-shop where people can come in hopes of finding permanent housing.
“I think we already have the components of a navigation center, but it’s putting them together in a more streamlined and efficient way,” says Tom Stagg, Chief Initiatives Officer at Housing Matters.
Expansion efforts have been made possible by one-time funding and grants. Still, these programs need long-term investment to continue running, says Evan Morrison, Executive Director at Santa Cruz Free Guide, which runs the DeLaveaga RV lot. The Free Guide is operating its shelter and services on a year-long grant.
STATE OF HOMELESSNESS
Despite the city’s efforts and a 59% decrease in families experiencing homelessness, the overall number of unhoused individuals hasn’t changed much in the last six years. In 2017, there were 2,249 individuals experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz County. In 2022 there were 2,299 reported, according to PIT counts. As people secure housing, more people are losing their homes and taking their place.
“So, the logic is, we house 1,000 people, that should translate to 1,000 less people being on the street,” says Richelle Noroyan, a previous city council member on the 2017 report’s coordinating committee. “But that’s not what’s going on.”
Some, like Noroyan, question if the growing numbers of homeless individuals are from people losing their homes in Santa Cruz versus those moving to Santa Cruz already homeless. The numbers say otherwise. According to the PIT count, 89% of people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz County lost their homes while living here.
A significant cause and problem are the affordable housing shortage in Santa Cruz. At their core, the city’s programs and partnerships aim to move people from the streets to permanent housing, not to prolong their homelessness. Preventive measures like housing vouchers and rent assistance can help people from losing their homes in the first place. In Santa Cruz County, a one-person household is considered low income at $87,000 a year, making homelessness a threat many people live on the brink of.
“It’s a valuable exercise to think about, ‘what would it take for me to become homeless?’” Morrison says. “And often, people don’t want to think about that.”
Free Guide Program Manager Maile Earnest adds that she would be homeless if she lost her job.
“I thought I could get in front of it and handle the situation,” says Conway about losing her home and income. “And it just snowballed out of my control.”
Housing advocates throughout Santa Cruz County recognize the necessity of having a home base.
“Being Homeless is a kind of a full-time job,” Morrison says.
“Asking somebody to focus on getting a job and finding housing when they’re living outside is like asking you to make a grocery list and go to the store in the middle of an earthquake,” adds Earnest, quoting previous county worker Christine Sippl.
For unhoused community members like Conway, having a stable roof over your head can change everything.
Homelessness is “not my story,” Conway says. “It’s just a chapter of it.”