For years, the Salvation Army in Watsonville has provided temporary shelter for unhoused people. It provided important services such as showers, clothing and laundry at the organization’s Navigation Center. The center serves roughly 120 dinners per day, as well as a light breakfast.
“Sometimes this is the only meal they get,” says Shelter Manager Cesar Leon.
This has been made possible thanks to $830,000 in annual funding from the County of Santa Cruz. That money comes in part from one-time state block grants.
Now, that money is being reallocated to a new homeless housing project.
Salvation Army officials say that could mean the closure of its 24-bed shelter and an end to the services for the people who stay there.
Santa Cruz County spokesman Jason Hoppin says that the funding will go to a community of tiny homes, a joint project between the counties of Monterey and Santa Cruz, the city of Watsonville and Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency. It is made possible by $8 million in state funding announced in June.
That project, which will initially include 34 tiny homes, has been tentatively slated for the parking lot of Westview Presbyterian Church in Watsonville. The Watsonville City Council will discuss the project at an upcoming meeting.
But initially, that site will be available for the homeless people living along the Pajaro River Levee.
With funding for the Salvation Army’s shelter ending on March 31 of next year, the people who use the shelter—more than 17,000 last year—will be left in the lurch, says Salvation Army Board Chair Trina Coffman-Gomez.
“Where are they going to go,” she says. “We don’t know where there will be a shelter for the clients that we’re currently serving, and there is a waitlist to that as well. We don’t need to shut something down that is working and functioning.”
The organization has been asking for a two-year extension that would allow officials to seek funding to replace its aging modular residential structure. But city and county officials have rejected that request. Now, the organization has four months to develop an exit strategy, Coffman-Gomez says.
“I’m not saying the (tiny homes) project shouldn’t take place,” she says. “I’m saying it shouldn’t shut down another project when we need more help than just specifically the levee residents. My biggest concern is that we are focusing on a specific segment of the population while leaving a greater majority of people that will be left to roam the streets because the county is no longer providing funding for services.”
The County’s Plan
Santa Cruz County Housing for Health Director Robert Ratner says that the new tiny homes project meets state regulations for “low-barrier” shelter programs, and will offer private accommodations with their partners and pets. That’s contrasted by “high-barrier” requirements of other shelters that have curfews and lights-out times.
Leon says that those rules are meant to instill a sense of order in the lives of the residents, many of whom are battling addiction.
“We’re obviously trying to get people housed and in order to get people housed you have to build structure,” he says. “The way we implement structure is by setting these rules.”
Plans for Expansion
While initially serving people living along the levee during the two-year life of the grant, the tiny homes project will eventually be available to other residents.
With some 200 people in Watsonville experiencing homelessness on any night, there is not enough funding to support two shelter sites in Watsonville, Ratner says.
“The new site will be structured to ensure it meets new standards for shelter operations and thus future funding and it will also include the potential for partnerships and future funding linked to Medi-Cal,” he says.
Lt. Nayeli Mercado, who manages the facility at 214 Union St., says the shelter program has a list of 300 people who utilize the services, with roughly 50 people per day stopping by.
Mercado says the Salvation Army has no plans to cease its services entirely. The organization will continue to provide services for low-income people such as a food pantry and a daily meal, she says.
“The Salvation Army was here for a long time, and its only purpose is to serve the community in different areas,” she says.