Julissa Diaz stands next to her tent at Camp Paradise in Santa Cruz in September 2021

Santa Cruz resident Julisa Diaz said she wants housing for herself and her children. (Kara Meyberg Guzman—Santa Cruz Local file)

SANTA CRUZ >> As part of Santa Cruz Local’s series on homelessness solutions, we surveyed 116 housed and unhoused people from Sept. 2 to Oct. 7. The surveys took place in person and online, and included homeless-service providers, formerly homeless people, residents in neighborhoods and residents in tent camps. 

We asked three questions:

  • What information or resources do you need related to homelessness in Santa Cruz County?
  • How is homelessness a part of your life? How are you impacted?
  • Tell us a story about the last time you saw an effective approach or service to address homelessness.

Responses from homeless residents

To hear from people experiencing homelessness, we went to 

  • A tent camp near Felker Street in Santa Cruz known as Camp Paradise 
  • Watsonville City Plaza
  • A tent camp near San Lorenzo Park in Santa Cruz
  • A Food Not Bombs meal distribution on Laurel Street in Santa Cruz

The resources that unhoused people need probably won’t surprise you. They were related to survival: Clean bathrooms, drinking water, food, clean clothes, laundry, bedding, showers with extended hours, phones, phone chargers and more durable shelter supplies than tents and tarps. 

“Housing is the most important thing. And we need bathrooms around here because everybody’s going everywhere. A lot of feces,” said lifetime Santa Cruz resident Julisa Diaz, 48. Diaz lives at Camp Paradise.

Some people said they had jobs or temporary work. Donald Wichser, 41, said he hauled dirt in a wheelbarrow as a day laborer the day before we spoke to him. Others said they had jobs recently. 

People said they found it hard to keep jobs because they didn’t have access to showers and reliably charged phones. Many said it was difficult to navigate and access government support for the same reason.

“A phone is really crucial,” said Mark Terran, 26. Terran said it was hard for him to know his work schedule because he didn’t own a phone. He said he heard of an update on his housing application, but did not know what it was. “I gotta call them and figure it out,” he said. 

Many people talked about their immediate needs to eat and shower and use a bathroom. When asked if they wanted housing, nearly all said they wanted it. Yet they didn’t have hope for housing in the near future. 

The waitlist for a Housing Choice voucher (formerly Section 8) was so long that many said it could be years before it was their turn. They focused on their immediate survival. Simply trying to stay warm, dry and clean was a challenge. 

“When you get home on a rainy day in the wintertime, you take your clothes off because you’re soaking wet. And if you keep your wet clothes on, you’re gonna freeze to death,” said Donald Wichser, 41. “Now you find a nice little warm part of a blanket that’s kind of damp. You sleep in that and then the next day you put on those wet clothes,” Wichser said.

“Just try (wearing dirty clothes) and see the way people treat you and how they view you. Go see about asking for a job, ask to use a bathroom,” Wichser said. “You’re not even a human being. People get pissed off that they have to hit their brakes if you’re in the middle of the road, and that’s sad. We are all one or we are none.”

People talked about some barriers to becoming housed. Several people said they did not have identification cards so had trouble finding work. Others said they could not get rent help because they did not have a disability or custody of their children. Some said some case managers were disorganized.

Responses from formerly homeless residents

We talked to some formerly homeless people and others concerned about affording their rent. Some said that having rental assistance, increased wages and family support were crucial to keep them housed.

Ollie Azevedo is a 64-year-old woman who said she used to live in her car.  She said what helped her get housed was having peer support and people who knew what she was going through. She got a job at the Homeless Garden Project. There, she received help creating a resume, connecting with homeless services and searching for jobs. She and her partner both found live-in jobs and are no longer homeless. 

A woman at a Watsonville Farmers Market echoed the need for a job search program. She said her family can afford rent because her husband got a higher-paying job.

Sara Coon, who is in her late 30s, lives in a Santa Cruz apartment. She said her wages were garnished for parking tickets and tickets she got for sleeping in a park. “I can’t afford to pay for parking at my own place,” Coon said. “$4 a day, I can’t afford that. And I have gotten four tickets, and I can’t afford those either. And it all adds up.”

Homeless services

Housed and unhoused people described several services that improved lives.

  • Temporary shelter: Housing Matters shelter, Association of Faith Communities’ safe parking program in church parking lots, the warming center, transitional housing, sanctioned and managed camps, low-barrier housing
  • Jobs and wages: Homeless Garden Project, higher wages, downtown streets team, job search program, job training
  • Health: Addiction treatment, mental health care, treatment with dignity, personalized assistance, free food, safer drug use, peer groups, support groups, family support, Homeless Persons Health Project
  • Other services: Case managers, clothing, phones, chargers and charging stations
  • Housing: Affordable housing, rental assistance, low-income housing, Housing Choice vouchers, tiny homes

However, few of those programs involve permanent housing — which is the only real cure for homelessness. 

We heard again and again that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. People need personalized and customized support because everyone’s situation is unique, survey respondents said. People want to be treated with dignity and respect.

Responses from housed residents and service providers

Some survey respondents who are not homeless said that seeing homeless people in Santa Cruz makes them sad. They wanted to know what the city and county leaders are doing to help. 

  • Respondents said they wanted to know how much money has been spent on homelessness and how it has been spent. 
  • People wanted to know where homeless people are from and why they don’t move somewhere where rent is cheaper. 
  • They wanted to know what solutions are effective, what it would take to implement them in Santa Cruz and how individuals can help. 

“It worries me to see how many people don’t have a place to live,” said Watsonville resident Blanca Martinez in Spanish. “They’re out in the cold. They don’t have a place to take a bath or shower. It’s really sad that they don’t have support or a place that could give them more security,” Martinez said.

Some people are fearful and have had bad experiences with people who are unhoused. “I perceive some areas (like) downtown, the path by the San Lorenzo as unsafe and undesirable to visit,” wrote Jim Toohey, 57. “Hearing people yell at the top of their lungs while walking down the middle of the street is enough to keep me away,” he said.

Some people said they worried about the impact of homeless people on their kids. One parent expressed concern about their child in elementary school who found a syringe during a trash cleanup. Homeless people slept at their school, the parent said. There were also concerns about children getting bikes stolen and kids’ safety in places like Downtown Santa Cruz.

Penny Stinson, 65, wrote, “We are bombarded with homeless sleeping on our street — the whole Westside. Garbage, sewage, needles, crazy/aggressive behavior, [feces] in our streets, and our parks inundated with these people, their dogs and their drugs.”

Joel Rigler, 64, wrote, “I live on the Westside (of) Santa Cruz. I used to walk to the beach along Shaffer Road through to Natural Bridges. Last time I did that walk with my wife, both sides of the street were parked solid with RVs, vans, etc., each of which had staked out a section of the sidewalk and dirt as their front deck and yard. The street smelled of [feces] and garbage. We ended up walking down the middle of the street and took the long way back around as we were so uncomfortable.”

Rigler and others’ comments about human waste in public spaces echo the concerns of many homeless people who were surveyed. Homeless respondents said they wanted more bathrooms, showers and laundry.

Several homeowners and landlords said they want to provide housing to homeless people on their property but didn’t know how to find the right fit. They also wanted to minimize potential risks. 

Leah Samuels, executive director of the Human Care Alliance, said she wanted creative solutions to help match landlords with tenants and case managers to handle potential disputes. 

The survey remains open. Tell us your thoughts about solutions.

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