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Time for Santa Cruz City Council to Create a Homeless Strategic Planning Committee
by Steve Pleich (spleich [at] gmail.com)
Saturday Jan 19th, 2019 6:33 PM
A Idea Whose Time Has Come
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In 2017, the Santa Cruz City Council presented the Homeless Coordinating Committee Final Report. And though this effort did yield several immediate and feasible options to address the condition of homelessness, it did little to create a framework within which many of the proposed actions could be implemented. Now two years gone and with the conditions for our unsheltered residents growing increasing dire, but with hoped for new funding opportunities on the near horizon, now is the right time for Council to create a citizens Homeless Strategic Planning Committee.

The council commission committee model has been used in the recent past to address pressing community issues and this model should now be applied to our most challenging current issue, that of services and support for people experiencing homelessness. Recent committees have addressed public safety, water supply and more recently, municipal charter amendment with differing degrees of success. The recommendations of the public safety committee 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 were implemented rendered the overall effectiveness of that committee virtually nil. The water supply advisory committee, on the other hand, received broad support from both staff and the Water Department and has substantially contributed to a workable and sustainable plan to insure our future water supply. Only time will tell the worth of the charter amendment committee as it deals with the issues of ranked choice voting, district elections and a separately elected Mayor among other challenging issues.

Even should council agree to commission a committee specifically charged with homelessness strategic planning, 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. Indeed, the call for the creation of a year-round shelter (an item that was included in the report as a 3-5-year option) was a consistent theme of speakers at the 2017 session. Virtually all the time, money and effort being applied to the issue of homelessness manifests itself in housing first models and many of the more substantive options offered in the committee report clearly reflected this approach. However, as we await the promised homeless-designated funding, these models remain presently impractical in view of the lack of available rentals and dearth of affordable housing. Bearing in mind that on any given night there are as many as 1,000 women, men and children unsheltered in the City of Santa Cruz, the need for day services centers, emergency shelter and targeted mental and behavioral health services and support for our homeless community are paramount and must be recognized and addressed. These issues must be at the very top of strategic priorities identified by a homeless committee.

Secondly, the composition of such a committee must reflect those segments of our community most profoundly impacted by this issue and include stakeholders whose participation can insure success. This was an issue also raised by several speakers addressing the 2017 report and who wondered aloud why service providers and members of the homeless community were not included nor consulted in the preparation of the report. Committee membership must 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 and most importantly, members of our local homeless community.

Lastly, it is crucial that the committee have an early "sunset" date. Although we don't want to rush to judgment on such important issues, 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. The efficacy of the Committee’s Final Report will, as with all things, be most accurately assessed in hindsight. Let's hope council’s foresight is as prescient with the creation of a citizens Committee on Homeless Strategic Planning as one of its first priorities. With all due respect, this is surely an idea whose time has come in our community.

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