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The Relative Merits of a Task Force on Homelessness
Scope, Composition and Duration Are Keys To Success
At its April 26 session, the Santa Cruz City Council will consider a proposal to form a Task Force on Homelessness. This task force model has been used in the recent past to address pressing community issues such as public safety and water supply and this problem solving model will now be applied to our most challenging current issue, that of services and support for people experiencing homelessness.
Prompted by community concern for this issue, the proposal by Council Members Comstock, Chase and Terrazas comes on the heels of the March 8 council rejection of the Lane Amendment which would have legalized "sleep", at least to some extent, within city limits. The scope, composition, appointment process and duration of the task force is yet to be determined but a discussion about the relative merits and substantive effect of a task force approach is both appropriate and arguably helpful at this time.
As mentioned, recent task forces have addressed public safety and water supply with differing degrees of success. The recommendations of the public safety task force were widely viewed as either unwieldy or impractical and were virtually ignored by city staff. Although several of the recommendations may have worked some substantive good or needed change, the fact that very few, if any, were actually implemented rendered the overall effectiveness of that task force virtually nil. The water supply task force, on the other hand, has received wide support from both staff and the Water Department itself and may well lead to a workable and sustainable plan to insure our future water supply. So how effective will a task force on homelessness be? Several things need to happen to create the opportunity for even modest success.
Firstly, the scope of the work must be broad enough to include both “housing first" and "shelter now" strategies. Virtually all of the time, money and effort being applied to the issue of homelessness manifests itself in housing first models. While noble in an altruistic sense, these models remain presently impractical in view of our lack of available rentals and dearth of affordable housing. On any given night there are as many as 1,000 women, men and children unsheltered in Santa Cruz; as many as 2,500 in the county. These figures are about 25 percent above that reported in the 2015 Homeless Census and Survey which is believed by most observers to be underreported by about that percentage biannually. These numbers are not intended to inflate the problem but are simply offered to present a clear picture of its scope.
Secondly, the composition on of the task force must reflect those segments of our community most profoundly impacted by this issue and include stakeholders whose participation can insure post task force success. These would include the faith community, neighborhood groups, local business leaders and retailers, representatives from nonprofits which primarily serve people experiencing homelessness, advocates for the homeless and, of course, members of our local homeless community. This is only a preliminary and suggested list and is not to be taken as complete or inclusive. There are surely other concerned groups and stakeholders whose input and participation will be key to the success of the task force.
Lastly, it is crucial that the task force have an early "sunset" date. Although we don't want to rush to judgment on such an important issue, the plight of people experiencing homelessness is nothing if not emergent. We must strategize thoughtfully, but we must also act with all deliberate speed if we are to see substantive options generated and implemented in a time frame that reflects the importance and urgency of the situation.
There should and must be much more discussion about the tasking force model itself and its history in Santa Cruz and comparisons to a similar effort more than a decade ago should be drawn and considered. But the efficacy of the current proposal will, as with all things, be most accurately assessed in hindsight. Let's hope of foresight is as prescient.