No issue has so divided the greater Santa Cruz community as providing day-use services at the Homeless Services Center.
This issue has continued to heat up for a variety of reasons:
- The public’s perception that transients continue to be a visible, often unwanted, presence in the city, county and downtown Santa Cruz in particular;
- The persistent drug culture in the county along with public inebriates;
- The numbers of mentally ill people on the streets and in public places;
- Illegal camping in the hills and along the San Lorenzo River by transients;
- Crimes that many neighbors and residents associate with people using the center;
- The role of the center in housing felons stemming from the AB 109 prison realignment initiative;
- The Homeless Services Center is located just off downtown at one of the busiest intersections in the county and on city-owned property;
- The center gets more city money than any other social service agency;
- And a longstanding, persistent outcry that Santa Cruz is a magnet for transients from other places mainly because of the support and services available here.
In coming months, the Sentinel will be examining some of these issues in depth.
But in the wake of recent crimes and violence, the rhetoric surrounding homeless services seems to have ratcheted up, as we reported this past Sunday. Santa Cruz for decades has prided itself on being a tolerant community that also cares for the less well off.
But this very tolerance has been increasingly questioned, as many residents have complained about crime, drug abuse and what they see as a lack of accountability and scrutiny of some services provided in the community. In particular, an unregulated needle exchange program has been a hot topic at recent City Council meetings, as outraged residents blame the program, and other services, for discarded syringes, drug crime and drug sales in the city and surrounding areas.
The homeless center points out that of the 1,100 people who received day services at the center last year, 65 percent were receiving emergency shelter and nearly 30 percent were able to get help with mental illness issues or addictions. The center’s executive director, Monica Martinez, told the Sentinel that putting limits on day services will work at counter purposes to the issues of homelessness in a community where housing costs are high and jobs are scant.
But critics say Santa Cruz cannot be expected to solve a national problem — and that day services contributes to an ongoing public safety problem.
The city owns the 60,000-square-foot property on Coral Street and leases it to the Homeless Services Center for a nominal rent of $3,400 a month. Santa Cruz also provides more funding for HSC — $184,000 overall for the center, including $42,000 for day services — than for any other social service program or agency out of the annual $1 million spent last year on social services.
City Councilwoman Lynn Robinson has been the primary elected voice asking that the upcoming budget review for the next fiscal year take a close look at funding for the homeless center, which includes four distinct programs, including the day services center. The issue appears headed for an overdue, and justified, city review.
The Homeless Services Center provides a much needed helping hand to many people in tough circumstances and we think most Santa Cruz County residents continue to support this effort. But it’s time to figure out if providing day services at the center is a factor in crime and drug problems as well.
This post is the Santa Cruz Sentinel Editorial for March 20, 2013