Bakersfield and Kern County, California, solved chronic homelessness in part through better coordination of service providers, shared housing databases and a fearless approach to experimentation and results monitoring. Despite Santa Cruz County’s housing shortage, there are lessons from Kern County that start with making housing searches more efficient for the unhoused. In Santa Cruz Local Ep. 96, Kara Meyberg Guzman travels to Bakersfield to learn the successes and limitations of the area’s approach to homelessness. Former Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane and Santa Cruz County leaders discuss strategies to solve homelessness that center on permanent housing.

Transcript below.

Among the tools Kern County uses:

  • Events try to court landlords to house the homeless: Landlords who house the homeless have advocated to other landlords. The events also give landlords tools to adjust their tenant screening criteria while working within fair housing laws. Santa Cruz County recently began a landlord outreach process with its Rehousing Wave.
  • A framework of experimentation: Homeless service providers test and measure new approaches to help chronically homeless individuals find housing faster. They track what works and scale up the successes.
  • A central housing database: A database is maintained that is basically Zillow for case managers. It has available rentals, landlords’ rules, landlords’ contact information and other details. The Housing Authority of the County of Santa Cruz maintains lists for prospective tenants and landlords, but the county does not have a central database of available rentals for homeless people. 
  • A “by-name list”: Staff from multiple homeless service agencies keep a list of names of all the chronically homeless people in Kern County. Each week, case managers from multiple agencies discuss each person on the list and steps to get them into housing. The list contains some details about the person’s situation, pets, barriers to housing, case managers and other information to try to eliminate duplicative intake forms. Santa Cruz County has had a version of this list since 2012, but county leaders said it has become hundreds long and difficult to update. It needs refinement, more case managers and more coordination. Many unhoused residents need cellphones and chargers because communication is often a problem.
  • Master leases: County-leased apartments for short-term rentals can help people build references to get rental housing elsewhere. There are risks and advantages of this approach.

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Transcript

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[THEME MUSIC]

KMG: I’m Kara Meyberg Guzman.

This is Santa Cruz Local.

[MUSIC FADE OUT]

Across California and our nation, there are pockets of hope: Communities that are solving homelessness. When leaders there talk about ending homelessness, they’re not saying that homelessness will disappear. They’re talking about building an efficient system to help people get housing. These systems are quick, agile, coordinated and open to new ideas. 

In today’s episode, we’ll learn about these systems to end homelessness, and how they work. We’ll examine how one California community’s system gets homeless people into housing. We’ll learn about its strengths and limitations. 

First, we should understand the recent history of Santa Cruz County’s approach to homelessness. 

I asked Don Lane for his take. He was Santa Cruz’s mayor in 2014. He was the founding board chairman of what eventually became Santa Cruz’s Homeless Services Center. Now it’s called Housing Matters. Lane has been working on homelessness in our county in various roles for decades. Right now, Don serves on the governing board of the Homeless Action Partnership. It’s a local group designated by the federal government. They coordinate the local homelessness response and related state and federal money.

Don Lane

Don Lane, a former Santa Cruz mayor, has worked on homelessness in Santa Cruz County in various roles for decades. He said Santa Cruz County needs to improve at homelessness prevention with better ongoing rent assistance, tenant legal aid, eviction protection and other measures. “If you have a good system to get people out of homelessness, that’s half the battle,” Lane said. “But if you haven’t turned off the faucet of people falling into homelessness, we’re still in the same boat.” (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local file)

Don says our community historically has had two main approaches to homelessness. Neither has been housing-oriented.

One has been what he calls “managing homelessness.” It’s about minimizing impact on people who are housed. So for example, that means laws that limit camping and panhandling. It also includes policies to address trash related to camps. 

The other approach has been homeless services. Things like soup kitchens and emergency shelters. This approach helps people survive. But it’s reactive and not focused on permanent housing. Permanent housing is the solution to homelessness. 

As Don and others put it, our county’s homelessness response system is more housing-focused than it used to be. But it’s still not all the way there. 

Our county’s homeless response system grew in the 1980s. It was a loose affiliation of churches, meal programs and shelter. 

DON LANE: It’s really important to remember historically, that the way our homeless response system came into being was very one-off. You know, like, a church said, let’s do this and a community group said, let’s do that. And so we built the old system, essentially, of independent groups saying, let’s do our thing to just respond, because we want to help. And so you know, that’s what we had for a long time was just these different islands of good work being done, but not really a system. 

KMG: But mindsets are starting to change. People are starting to focus more on housing.

DON LANE: Now we have gotten to this point where there’s a much bigger recognition that always, we have to be thinking about housing as part of every solution. Like you can do all these other interventions, but if a person doesn’t end up in housing, they’re still homeless, and then we still have homelessness. So that historical process has been really interesting to watch, around kind of rethinking, periodically, and  I think, in a good way about, well, what are the programmatic responses we ought to have.

And now we see so much more focus on permanent supportive housing. And on shelters that are housing focused. In other words, it’s still an emergency shelter. But as soon as someone arrives in the shelter, the work is, yeah, we’re going to keep you safe and healthy here today, make sure you have some food, but mostly what we’re going to do is work on how you get out of this shelter and into some kind of more real housing. 

So that’s been, you know, that’s going on here. But in the meantime, we are still having to do those short-term interventions. We still manage, we still have laws that manage people and, you know, deal with camping and littering and sanitation kinds of issues. And then we also, hopefully, are making some progress on getting people into housing.  

KMG: Still, not all homeless services in Santa Cruz County are focused on housing.  

DON LANE: So we’re getting there, I think the orientation is very good. And the implementation is happening. So there’s both the speed of implementation is somewhat of a challenge. But also, in the end, you still have that tension between wanting to try and get people right into housing, but not having enough housing stock, and therefore needing these sort of more interim housing or shelter kinds of solutions.

KMG: A big example of the change is the county’s Housing for Health Division. It started in 2020. Its goal is to help house people and coordinate the county’s homeless services. 

DON LANE: And so the process has been very gradual to bring that into a coordinated system. And so it takes a long time when you have all these independent groups to say, hey, you know, this is how we really want to do this now. And we want you to be connected with the system and use different frameworks. I mean, new frameworks for you that are more housing-first oriented. And so it takes a long time for organizations to shift into that new mode, to staff differently, to train differently, just the whole mindset changes. So that’s really happening. I feel like on paper, we’re almost there. But there’s still a process. 

[MUSIC]

KMG: To understand how a housing-focused system works, I went to Bakersfield and Kern County in California’s Central Valley. This community has a homelessness response system that’s more focused on housing and more efficient.

Bakersfield is the county seat of Kern County. Kern County has found success at addressing chronic homelessness. Chronically homeless people are among the most challenging to help house. “Chronically homeless” means that they’ve been homeless for at least a year. Or they’ve been homeless at least four times in the last three years. On top of that, they have a disabling condition, like a serious mental illness or drug addiction. 

Since March 2020, Kern County has maintained what’s called “functional zero” for chronic homelessness. That means the county has three or fewer people who are chronically homeless.

Kern County is one of five communities in the country to reach this threshold. 

To be clear, Kern County still has unhoused people. And it still has people who become chronically homeless. But the community has built something rare — an efficient system to house chronically homeless people. On average, it takes Kern County’s system about four months to move a chronically homeless person into housing. That’s four months from intake to a permanent home.  

In Santa Cruz County, that average wait time is two years. That’s according to Phil Kramer, the executive director of Housing Matters in Santa Cruz. 

Bakersfield skyline

Kern County’s homelessness response system has helped house hundreds of chronically homeless residents in recent years. Auto shops and other businesses line Edison Highway in Bakersfield. (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local)

Bakersfield is about 250 miles southeast of Santa Cruz. It’s surrounded by almond and orange orchards. It’s just east of I-5. 

When I visited Bakersfield recently I asked a bunch of locals what they love about the city. An off-duty firefighter having lunch at Too Fat Sandwiches downtown told me about Bakersfield’s theaters. He loves all the Basque restaurants around town. He told me the city is safe and family-oriented. 

A web designer and musician working on his laptop at Cafe Smitten downtown told me about how relaxed the city is. It’s not uptight. He says you can get around in rush hour and find street parking. You don’t have to worry about your car getting broken into. He told me Bakersfield has a big country-music scene too. He said it’s like Nashville West.

Kern County has different strengths and challenges than Santa Cruz County. Kern County is much bigger. In terms of land, it’s one of the biggest counties in the state. Santa Cruz County is one of the smallest. Kern County also has more than three times as many people as our county. Kern County has about 900,000 people. Santa Cruz County has about 275,000 people. 

Kern County’s government is also much bigger and better funded. 

Homelesesness is a bigger problem in Santa Cruz County. Our county has about 2,400 households that are homeless. Kern County has about 2,200 people who are homeless.

It’s also harder to build housing in Santa Cruz. In Kern County there’s more land to build. Their housing market is more affordable. Their rental market is less competitive.

Still, Kern County’s strength lies in its efficiency in housing some of the most challenging people to house. Let’s learn how they did it.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

KMG: Kern County’s first step was to get the main homeless service providers on the same page. 

EDDIE TURNER: Before there was excellent, truly like top-of-class coordination in that Kern County system, just like in almost every county in the country, we inadvertently set up systems where those folks who have been experiencing homelessness for a long time and have some some style of disability, we’re asking them to make their way through some local maze of service providers and government offices.

KMG: That’s Eddie Turner. He works for Built for Zero. It’s a program that works with communities across the country to address homelessness. Eddie was a special lead for Kern County’s chronic homelessness initiative. He’s based in Atlanta.

EDDIE TURNER: I think, a very typical situation that that, you know, I think was true in Kern County before this coordination. But again, I think it’s true nearly everywhere in the country, is you might go to a shelter and have to answer maybe an hour’s worth of questions about yourself, about your history, and about how much money you’ve got, and about the most recent place you’ve been living, and about your personal connections — very personal, invasive questions, that often is just the price of a ticket to get any kind of service. And then if you want, you know, help filing for disability or getting benefits or food or housing assistance, you may have to the very next day, go to a different office and, like, you’ve got to find your way there. 

And you’ve got to now answer all those freaking questions all over again, the same highly personal, highly invasive questions that are being asked, you know, again, with good intentions, trying to get this information so that we can be helpful to people. But so often, people might make it, you know, all the way through that assessment, those assessment questions, again, to be told, you know what, I’m not the person who can help you. I actually think the person who can help you is over here at this third office. 

So I think the experience that we see before communities start coordinated entry and really, truly refine it and go through this process of deep improvement and experimentation to make it run faster, is that a person experiencing homelessness has to go to a lot of places, fill out a lot of forms, answer a lot of very personal invasive questions, talk to and get handed off between a whole lot of people. And there’s such excruciating wait times happening between each of those little conversations, each of those office visits, each of those shelters stays. And frequently, again, like despite people’s best intentions, frequently people are being treated really badly through this process. 

Even the best homelessness response systems are not that great. No one’s dying to have this experience. 

KMG: Eddie’s points echo what we heard from many unhoused people in Santa Cruz County. This summer and fall, I did in-depth interviews with more than a dozen people who live outside. I heard about how frustrating and confusing it is to get things like mental health care, housing vouchers, an ID card, unemployment benefits and child care. 

So how did Kern County improve its system? The first thing they did was get everybody on the same page. They built a new committee of about two dozen people. Most worked at homeless service agencies. Some were executives. Some worked directly with clients.  

They agreed on a shared goal: to focus on the chronically homeless. Then they agreed on a definition of chronically homeless. This is important because some organizations define it differently. The committee used the definition used by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Bakersfield Homeless Center

Staff from the Bakersfield Homeless Center on Truxtun Avenue helped coordinate a county-wide experimental framework to house chronically homeless people in Kern County. Agencies cooperate to test new ideas to help reduce wait times for housing. (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local)  

Once they got aligned, they agreed on a process. All the homeless service providers I spoke to in Bakersfield said this was the big key. All the organizations adopted a framework of experimentation. This approach is to run small tests, measure success, then scale up the ideas that show promise. The approach is championed by Built for Zero. 

We’ll talk about this approach in a minute. But let’s get back to the problem Eddie Turner talked about. Doing intake again and again. One solution is a by-name list. That’s a centralized list of names of all the chronically homeless people in the county. Multiple agencies access this shared list.

That list includes information like:

  • Where and when was the person last seen by a service provider?
  • Who is their case manager? 
  • How long have they been waiting for housing?
  • Are they a youth, a veteran or a family? Basically, do they qualify for other help from the government?

By-name lists also usually have what’s called a vulnerability score. That score is based on a bunch of health questions that basically say how at risk someone is from dying from being homeless. 

Santa Cruz County has versions of these by-name lists. We’ll get to that. 

Eddie Turner again.

EDDIE TURNER: You can’t know if you’ve ended homelessness, you can’t know if you’re making the problem, better — the problem being the system that’s serving people experiencing homelessness — you can’t know if you’re making that system better, unless you’ve got data that you really believe in. 

Do you know everyone who’s experiencing homelessness here? And not just have you know, like their name written down somewhere, but have some pretty good information about them? What are their needs? How acute are their needs? 

It’s very similar to the way that an emergency room works. An emergency room is not, you know, first come first serve. That’s a deli. An emergency room, they want to know: How critical is the problem that brought you in here? Is it a broken arm? Or is it a heart attack? 

And having that kind of knowledge about each person experiencing homelessness, that was Kern County’s first job, was to make sure that they had that level of information that would help them triage people experiencing a housing crisis. And that no matter where you enter this system, whether you went to, you know, like this shelter over here, or this assistance office over there, that all that information was winding up in the same place. That there was a really, truly coordinated approach across the system. So that no matter what door you came in, this centralized system knows something about you and is able to figure out what kind of resources you need. And that sets them up to deliver those resources as quickly as possible.

KMG: Eddie tells me the key is to do something with the data.

EDDIE TURNER: The really crucial thing is, it’s got to be for action, that by-name list has got to drive action. Now we’ve got the list. Great. And so what we should do with it is, my hope is that there is a field or multiple fields on each by-name list in which there is a clear next step written out for the next week for each and every person on that list. 

What is, you know, like the first case manager doing for like five of these clients, and the second case manager doing for the next five of these clients? What is something that the Housing Authority is doing to push for this voucher for this client? And for each person, there’s some next step that’s happening for each person on it. I think the next step should have a date on it. So that, you know, we’re keeping the urgency up. We’re trying to, like, move this person through our byzantine process. 

And we also recommended — I know Kern County does this — we recommend that for each person on that by-name list, you add a target housing date. It’s purely a prediction to say, alright, this person who entered our system three weeks ago, given what we know about their vulnerability, given what we know about the number of resources in our system today, what’s my prediction about when I think they can move in to permanent housing?

We find that there’s something really powerful about predicting a date, because now it kind of forces us to game out: What do we know about how well our system’s working? What do we know about what I need to do next individually, to help this person move through? And if we find that we’re getting past that date, then I think it tells us, there’s something we got to improve here. And hopefully, it helps us figure out precisely what that thing is, so we can improve it. 

So I think that the by-name list can become a really powerful tool for always sparking what’s the next action we can take, what’s the next way that we can help this person take one step toward housing.

Deborah Johnson of the California Veterans Assistance Foundation in Bakersfield

Deborah Johnson, the president/CEO of the California Veterans Assistance Foundation, was a lead in Kern County’s Built for Zero collaborative. Johnson said the by-name list was a key to their approach because it helped focus the team. “We know who they are, where they were last seen, who their case manager is, what agency is following them, date of last contact,” Johnson said. “And even though this information is also captured in the Homeless Management Information System, just having a targeted list is so much easier because I think the true key to our community getting over that hurdle was developing an effective case management strategy.” (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local)

KMG: Every week, staff from different agencies meet to discuss each person on the list. These meetings are called “case conferences.” At first these meetings weren’t very effective. They were too focused on just updating the list.

They changed tack. They split the chronically homeless list into shorter lists: one for youth, one for veterans and another for families, for example. They focused on the housing outcome for each person.

Here’s Heather Kimmel. She’s the assistant executive director of Kern County’s housing authority.

HEATHER KIMMEL: When we first started case conferencing, everybody’s focus was on what the client’s barriers were, which was very natural, and easy to do, right? So you have a client that you’re trying to house by the end of October, and they have five dogs, and they’re not willing to get rid of any of their dogs. So that’s the barrier. And so each week, when we were case conferencing, there was no status change, right? I have a client with five dogs. They’re unwilling to get rid of any other dogs, but I hope I can help them by the end of October. 

So we said, well, that’s not going to change. The client’s always going to have five dogs. They’re never going to get rid of their dogs. So that’s not really the client’s barrier. That’s our barrier as case manager to figure out how to overcome that situation. 

So we started looking at barriers a little bit differently through our case conferencing. And we said, OK what is my barrier today in housing this client? And so the case manager says, ‘Now, I have a client with five dogs and I can’t find a landlord who takes multiple pets.’ And now everybody else in the group says, ‘Oh, I have a landlord that I have somebody with last month that takes multiple pets. Oh, have you tried, you know, housing them in Ridgecrest?’ There’s a lot of landlords in that community in Ridgecrest that takes pets. And now everybody started resource sharing. 

And so when we looked at the through case conferencing, the barriers that appear to be the clients’ barriers and took ownership of those barriers as ours to figure out how to overcome, we started seeing a lot of success in housing placements. 

KMG: Heather told me about another change to their system. At first, those case conferences were led by executive staff. Front line staff would report progress. It didn’t work. 

HEATHER KIMMEL: And at the beginning, the meetings felt almost like a performance review, for lack of a better example. With the executive-level staff there, the frontline staff who were working one on one with these clients, were not, um, didn’t feel as comfortable being open about what their barriers are, like, what their actual challenges are. Because they, of course, wanted to look like, I’ve got this, I’ve got this client, I’m going to house this client, of course I can do this. So we said, what if we strip away the supervisors from the process, and we make this a peer-driven meeting. 

And so they would take notes, and the notes would go back out, because of course, the supervisor still wanted to be connected to the process. But, yeah, everybody really started clicking when we just made it a very collaborative environment. You know, once we change that mindset of this is my barrier to overcome, not the client’s barrier. And we made it a collaborative kind of safe space for them to really network with each other and brainstorm. And it was just a little think tank every week. It really made a big difference.

KMG: Those by-name lists allowed the team to understand how chronically homeless people moved through the system. Now they could see patterns of barriers and where the system needed to be streamlined.

HEATHER KIMMEL: It was really just looking at the patterns in the data. If we saw a couple months where our average number of people being housed dipped, then we knew we needed to do some sort of landlord engagement campaign or some sort of landlord incentive. We had to do something to drive those housing placements back up. 

If we saw a couple months where we had zero inflow, that looks like really positive data. But that also caused us to question like, you know, are people just not doing the certifications for chronic homelessness? Or do we actually not have? So we really just looked month over month at any changes in our data.

KMG: Heather is a lead on Kern County’s Built for Zero committee. She described that framework of experimentation as a big key to their success. She said that using small experiments, measuring success and adapting to what works was a huge change for Kern County. 

HEATHER KIMMEL: It’s a very vulnerable place, actually, when you say this is what we’re doing to serve the homeless individuals in our community. And then to say, here’s where we’re not doing it well, right? It was a kind of a paradigm shift, if you will, in saying, ‘OK, we’re gonna try something to see if it improves this. And if it doesn’t improve it, if what we tried didn’t work, that’s OK too.’ Right? But we’re still gonna report out on it. We’re still gonna say why it didn’t work. And maybe that sparks five other ideas that we can try.

KMG: Before, the various agencies and nonprofits were all working to end homelessness. But each did it in their own way. Now, the organizations had a shared goal and a shared process. They ran short experiments. They called their hypotheses “change ideas.”

HEATHER KIMMEL: We got really good at breaking down our process, coming up with change ideas, testing them quickly. And then when they worked, scaling them up. So we would have one organization test an idea with the population they directly serve. We would gather the data from that in a week or two weeks time, and determine: Did it have an impact? 

And if it did have an impact, then we would adopt it as a new part of our process. We would start rolling it out across all partner agencies within the collaborative, and it now became how we do things. And so we got really good at doing that. And we got really good at looking at our data and saying, ‘You know, what, we’re having an issue in our data here, or data’s not doing the thing we want it to do. So it’s time for us to break down the process around this dataset.’

Mary Scott of the Bakersfield Homeless Center

Mary Scott, administrative analyst for the Bakersfield Homeless Center, was a leader in Kern County’s Built for Zero collaborative. She said keys to the approach were the collaboration between agencies and experimentation with new ideas. “We were able to come up with these different change ideas that helped us to solve the issues or barriers that our clients were experiencing,” Scott said. “So their barriers became our barriers. And what we started doing was problem solving and figuring out how we could make sure that their time on that by-name list was as short as possible.” (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local)

[MUSIC]

KMG: In Santa Cruz County’s homelessness response system, one of the biggest barriers is a shortage of permanent housing. There aren’t enough landlords who accept housing vouchers. You can’t get out of homelessness if you can’t find an apartment or some place to rent.

What’s really interesting to me about Kern County’s approach, is that they were able to find housing for hundreds of chronically homeless people without relying on new housing construction. Building housing is part of their long-term strategy. But they didn’t have time to wait. They grew their available housing stock by convincing landlords to rent to homeless people.

HEATHER KIMMEL: We had to make our homeless clients look just as competitive in a housing application as a non homeless client. And so when, you know, your landlord that you have multiple applicants for a unit and you are looking at, you know, just looking at them on paper, what is going to make you choose my homeless client, where that might feel very scary to you as a landlord, or risky. 

So the first thing we did is we created a risk mitigation fund. It’s basically an insurance policy for a landlord. Once they rent to somebody who’s experienced homelessness that’s linked to supportive services, they’re automatically enrolled in the fund. They don’t have to do anything, they’re just automatically enrolled in it.

Our fund is set at $2,500 above the security deposit during their first 18 months in tenancy. So we know that if somebody is successful in housing through that first year, they’re likely to remain successful. If it’s going to go wrong, it’s going to go wrong in that first year. 

We rarely ever get claims to the fund but it’s a nice way to make the landlords feel a little bit more comfortable with their perceived risk. 

We also created a position that works for the community, not for a specific agency. And so that position, we call it a housing locator. It’s different than a housing navigator. They don’t have clients that they work with. Their sole job is selling housing programs to landlords. That position was funded specifically for our chronically homeless effort. It helped us get the housing inventory we needed to reach functional zero.

KMG: The housing authority also started using software called Padmission. It’s like Zillow for homeless service providers. It’s a database of all the rentals in Kern County that case managers can place homeless people in. It has a map with locations, and details, like if the landlord takes pets. Heather said it increased success rates of housing applications once case managers knew which landlords were interested in housing homeless people. 

The team also experimented with events to recruit landlords. They called them “landlord summits.” 

HEATHER KIMMEL: We’d been talking to landlords quite a bit about the programs and trying to pitch them. And there was still, you know, this kind of hesitancy because we’re the provider pitching the program, of course, we’re going to make it sound like this wonderful thing. And so we said, well, what if we get the landlord community to talk to the landlord community about it, instead of it coming from the provider. I think that part of the idea was extremely successful.

KMG: The first event was hosted by a local landlord association. It was promoted by the California Apartment Association. A hundred landlords attended. 

At that time, Kern County’s chronic homeless by-name list was 60 people. All 60 had a housing voucher, but nowhere to go.

At the summit, the landlord association pitched the business benefits of renting to homeless people. It wasn’t just about doing a good deed. At the end of the presentation, there was a dramatic moment. Organizers asked the audience, ‘Who’s in? Who pledges to rent a unit to an unhoused person?”

HEATHER KIMMEL: And, yeah. People came up, and they kept coming up. And every time I talk about it, I get emotional, because I’ll never forget that moment of, oh, my gosh, people are willing to house these individuals who are suffering, that just need somebody to take a chance on them and willing to make their units available to them.  

KMG: Within a few days, the program had 68 new units committed.

But… it didn’t quite work out. Some units were not yet available. Other units wouldn’t pass the housing quality standards. 

A big chunk of units wouldn’t work for most chronically homeless people. That’s because of the landlords’ screening criteria. For example, their contracts wouldn’t allow for tenants who had a felony. Some screening criteria wouldn’t allow a credit score under 600.

The team used the units they could. Then they changed tack.

For the next year’s summit, they invited fair housing and eviction attorneys to speak about screening criteria. Those attorneys showed landlords how to change screening criteria without violating fair housing law. They also gave the landlords sample screening criteria policies more likely to allow program participants. 

They got more than 80 housing commitments from the event.

This approach of constantly testing and adjusting the landlord recruitment process worked. The team connected hundreds of chronically homeless people with housing.

And then they got to the last few people on the by-name list. These were the absolute hardest people to house. Heather Kimmel told me it was time for something drastic.

The housing authority took on 10 master leases. They subletted those units to those last few chronically homeless people.

HEATHER KIMMEL: We couldn’t come up with any other idea to get these, these last people housed. So we’re like, well, we’re just gonna get units, and we’re just gonna put them in the units.

KMG: The housing authority took on all the risk. If somebody needed to be evicted, the housing authority would pay for it. Any damage? They’d pay for that too.

After a year in the program, clients got a Housing Choice voucher. That’s the new name for a Section 8 voucher. Then the client took over the lease. The thought was, if the client could show they’re a good tenant, the landlord would be more willing to work with them.

HEATHER KIMMEL: We were also coming up against a unique challenge with this last group of clients that when we did find somebody who would rent to them, they had a list of reasons why they wouldn’t accept that unit. I don’t want to rent a place with brown carpet, I only like green carpet, or, you know, just all sorts of things. 

And so we theorized that, maybe they aren’t declining the units because there’s actually something wrong with the unit. Maybe they’re declining the unit because they’re afraid of applying and being told no again. So our master lease change idea was kind of twofold. One, can we get landlords to do this program with us? And if we go to our client and say, we have an apartment for you, you don’t need to apply for it, come and sign the lease, and you will be given the keys, like, will we still see our clients saying no to the apartments? 

Everybody said yes. Everybody accepted the units. So we believe that a lot of the challenges around housing some of the clients that have been told ‘no’ so many times has a lot to do with their fear of the process and being rejected. We think that that, you know, through the master leasing program, and stripping away the possibility of being rejected, kind of proved that theory to be true.

KMG: At the end of that year, all but one of those 10 tenants stayed housed after the master lease program. The program ended because they ran out of money. It cost about $140,000 that year. Heather said the housing authority would like to do it again.

Next time, though, they’d want to set aside some money in case something goes wrong. In the pilot, they had a problem. A tenant died and someone moved in without approval.

HEATHER KIMMEL: It happened kind of right as COVID eviction moratoriums were put in place. It was really hard to get that squatter out of the unit and to turn that unit back over to the landlord in the condition that we agreed upon. And it became a very expensive process. So I think before we would do a master lease program again, we would want to make sure that we had an adequate contingency fund. 

KMG: Heather told me they’d also need to figure out how to get insurance coverage for the master lease program. Because of the unique setup, the housing authority didn’t qualify for renter’s insurance or agency insurance. They tried to get the clients to get renter’s insurance, but it still put the housing authority at risk.

OK, some of you are probably thinking: Landlord recruitment and master leases may work in Kern County. But Santa Cruz County’s rental market is SO MUCH more competitive. That’ll never work here. 

I asked Eddie Turner from Built for Zero about how communities with expensive housing markets convinced landlords to rent to homeless people. 

He told me that big cities like Denver, Boston and Washington, D.C. figure out how to work with their existing housing stock. They make it more efficient.

EDDIE TURNER: I think there’s some social network to activate, I think some positive social pressure to activate, where there are spaces. How can we make sure that we’re really using every possible space? And in a very high rent community like Santa Cruz, can we get creative? And can we talk to our neighbors? And can we talk to like people in our book clubs, people in our workplaces, and really start to socialize the idea that where we have rentable, livable, you know, good, decent places to live that can also be affordable, how can we make sure that we’re truly maximizing those opportunities for people experiencing homelessness?

It’s a thing where I think, you know, finding people with ADUs, finding people with like, rentable basements 一 it sounds like kind of a drip, drip, drip in the ocean, in terms of the need.

So I think, a little bit, finding new units is a game of margins. Where can you find three this month? Where might you find four the next month?

It’s not to say that we can just improve our way out of a jam. At some point, there needs to be more housing stock. At some point, there needs to be more housing stock. There’s not there’s not another way around that. And it’s true at the same time, we find consistently that everyone can also use the resources that they have a little bit in a more optimized fashion. And how can we have both conversations at the same time where whatever housing stock we have, can we make sure that the people who need it the most are truly getting it the fastest and are coming up first for some of these units? And how do we develop more housing?

KMG: Let’s get back to Kern County’s approach. Let’s compare it to Santa Cruz County’s system.

Santa Cruz County’s system has many similarities.

  • For example, Santa Cruz County’s housing authority also recruits landlords to rent to unhoused people. They offer many incentives.

For example:

  • There is a $2,000 signing bonus for landlords to rent to a person or household who is homeless.
  • There’s a fund that pays landlords up to $5,000 for any damages, legal fees, vacancy losses or other costs. 
  • There’s 24-hour emergency support and case manager support

Santa Cruz County also has people whose sole job is to recruit landlords. They’re called housing navigators. They’re employed by the county. The county also recently hired Abode Services to run landlord recruitment events. Abode is a nonprofit homeless service provider. 

Housing Matters has similar staff roles. Their housing navigators recruit landlords to work specifically with Housing Matters clients.

In Kern County though, the landlord recruitment system is more centralized. Housing locators and landlords enter available listings into a central database. Then case managers from all agencies can search that database.

Santa Cruz County does not have a central database for available listings for people with vouchers. Sometimes case managers from different agencies share notes on available listings. But that happens informally. 

Santa Cruz County does not have a master lease program at the housing authority. Jenny Panetta, the housing authority’s executive director, told me she’d like to learn more about Kern County’s approach. She told me housing authorities actually used to run master lease programs for large developments. This was decades ago, before housing voucher programs. 

Santa Cruz County also has found some success at housing chronically homeless people. Santa Cruz County actually has worked with Built for Zero for years. It’s a less intensive partnership than what Kern County has.

It started in 2012 with Housing Matters, back when Housing Matters was called the Homeless Services Center. With Built for Zero, Housing Matters led an initiative called 180/180. It focused on housing chronically homeless people.  

Since 2012, that initiative has helped house more than eleven hundred chronically homeless people in our county. An important difference is that in Santa Cruz County, people are falling into chronic homelessness at a faster rate than the system can currently handle.

Since 2012, Housing Matters has kept a by-name list for chronically homeless people. Like Kern County, our county uses a vulnerability score to help triage who needs housing most urgently. They call it the Smart Path survey.

But our county uses that list and data differently. Here’s Phil Kramer. He’s the executive director of Housing Matters.

PHIL KRAMER: The thing about a by-name list is there’s a certain… How do I say this? It’s meant to be dynamic and updated. So if we went back and looked at everybody that took the Smart Path survey from many years ago, it’s a really, really long list. 

A by-name list is meant to be, designed to be more current. Like, a by-name list means we know where — I’ll use these (names) — Mark is. And where Bob is.

KMG: It’s like the on-deck list. These are the people we’re about to help and get them housed. 

PHIL KRAMER: It’s a great way to think of it. An on-deck list.

And that takes real rigor. I mean, real rigor, like outreach, case management, do they have a phone? Can we stay in touch with them? There’s lots of reasons why we want people to come into shelter. But one of the biggest things is, it’s so hard to stay in touch. It’s huge. It sounds like a small thing. It’s one of the biggest challenges we have to stay in partnership with someone on their pathway to housing, is just contact. Staying in contact. It’s huge.

Phil Kramer gives a tour at Housing Matters in Santa Cruz

Housing Matters Executive Director Phil Kramer gives a tour in May 2020 at the Housing Matters campus in Santa Cruz. (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local file)

KMG: Agencies in our county have improved at housing homeless veterans. Similar to Kern County’s approach, a team from Housing Matters and other agencies keep a by-name list of homeless veterans. The case managers meet weekly and go through the list. As of October, there were 53 people on the veteran by-name list. That’s the lowest it’s ever been, Phil told me.

For chronic homelessness in our county, it’s a different story. Phil estimates that our county’s chronically homeless list has grown to nearly 500 people. That’s just a guess. He says the chronically homeless by-name list is a work in progress.

Part of the problem is he needs more staff to work the list, he says. 

PHIL KRAMER: The list got so big after 2012 that it was almost — it got so big, I’m going to use the word unmanageable. But I don’t want someone to say, blame me for an unmanageable list. We just interviewed and surveyed as many people as we could, like, we just kept — which was the right thing to do. 

KMG: Phil said his team did not want to rely on the Point in Time count. That survey happens every two years. It estimates the number of unhoused people in the county. 

KRAMER: So we kept interviewing, and you want to keep interviewing because it’s real person-to-person data. So we kept interviewing, but the list got so, you know, 1,000 people. Well, how do we house 1,000 people? 

We weren’t able to keep it as dynamic. It was growing. But we kept having to go back up to the top and go, “Well, who’s the highest score? Who’s been on the list the longest?” 

So one of our big challenges in those years, and even now, is identifying, you know, who. Who’s our Top 10? Top 20? Keep working that list. 

And so the by-name list, what we’re doing differently today is, we’re truly using not just the long, long list of everybody we’ve surveyed since 2012. Is working this really active and trying to get to this really dynamic on the bench, your work, list. We want it to be dynamic. We don’t want it to just be this languishing huge list. 

KMG: Don Lane is also familiar with Housing Matters’ work on the by-name lists. He also said the barriers are a lack of staff to work the list and a lack of apartments to connect clients to.

DON LANE: Having that by-name list is really good. Except if there’s too many people on it, and you don’t have enough people to work with all those people, it’s gonna be that everyone who’s not near the top is just kind of languishing. And that’s not anybody’s fault. That’s just a lot of work that has to be done, and you just do the best you can. So again, this goes back to housing, because if you have more housing then when you’re near the top of the list, and someone’s working with you, and you don’t have a difficult time finding that kind of inexpensive apartment somewhere, boom, you know, that can happen kind of fast. But if I’m working with the person experiencing homelessness, and we’re, you know, have built a nice relationship, I know what’s going on with them, we figured out the resources, and then I still can’t find an apartment, I’m going to be spending a long time with that person before I get to the next person. Right? So that’s a really big problem.

KMG: Kern County’s willingness to experiment and tweak their system was a defining feature of their approach. We asked Robert Ratner about how Santa Cruz County compares. He’s the director of Santa Cruz County’s Housing for Health Division. He leads the county’s homelessness response system.

Robert told us that Kern County is ahead of our county in terms of willingness to experiment. He said our county is still trying to get everybody on the same page.

Robert said our county has a couple experiments. For example, our county is following Bakersfield’s lead with the landlord recruitment events. And Robert is familiar with Kern County’s housing locators that help multiple agencies. Our county is trying to build a similar centralized approach to landlord recruitment.

But really, our county is still trying to align all the parts of the system toward shared goals.

ROBERT RATNER: That’s kind of what our small team is trying to figure out is, how do we get everybody focused on the ultimate goal of figuring out all the things we need to set up to help people get back into permanent housing? And how do we get people working on the same page? I think part of it is trying to use a community development framework. I think there’s a perception that government will do this alone, and that all the nonprofits don’t need to be involved or the cities don’t need them. So how do we kind of bring people together and agree on a shared vision and destination? Fundamentally, I think it’s about building those relationships and finding out what’s motivating people to want to be involved with this issue in some way. And then trying to get them to join forces with a collective effort. 

[MUSIC]

KMG: I asked Kern County leaders about the limitations of their approach.

One of the main themes I heard was that it can feel painful to focus for a year or two on one subset of homeless people. If everyone’s working on one group, you may not make progress with the other groups. 

While Kern County’s chronically homeless population dropped, their total number of homeless people rose. There’s not necessarily a correlation. There’s lot of factors at play. 

It’s worth noting though. 2017 is when Kern County’s Built for Zero work began on chronic homelessness. That year, the county had about 810 homeless people. That’s a 10-year low. 

In 2020, when the county reached functional zero in chronic homelessness. That year, the county had about twice as many homeless people as it did in 2017.

Right now, Kern County is applying that by-name list approach to other homeless groups, like youth.

A few leaders also told me about skepticism among residents. Some vocal residents didn’t believe that Kern County’s system got to functional zero in chronic homelessness. They still saw homelessness in parts of Bakersfield. When word got out in the community about the success, some residents’ reaction was, ‘How dare Kern County say they’ve ended chronic homelessness.’ 

Leaders told me that residents didn’t understand the definitions of chronic homelessness or functional zero. It can be confusing. They said if Santa Cruz County wanted to try this approach, they should clearly communicate the goal, and communicate clearly the definitions.

I asked the Kern County leaders I spoke to for their advice. What would they want Santa Cruz County leaders to know?

Eddie Turner.

EDDIE TURNER: What we think is totally possible, totally attainable 一 proven partially by successes such as Kern County’s and other communities 一 is that you can create a system so that when someone experiences a housing crisis, it won’t last long. It hopefully won’t repeat.  And that they’ll be returned to stability and security in permanent housing really quickly. When we say we’re after ending homelessness, that’s what we mean. 

We think a really important part of getting there is people hearing that that’s possible, is local leaders, like your folks in Santa Cruz, saying, we’re not here to maintain the status quo. We’re not doing this work so that we can keep our systems the same way they’ve always been for 100 million years. We’re here to do something new and different about this, in this work together.

And, you know, it feels like the cards are stacked against us all the time. I think in a place like Santa Cruz, where rents and property values are so high, I know it feels like the cards are doubly stacked against you. I can tell you that I personally believe that where a bunch of smart, well-resourced, highly determined people come together to say we can change this, we can truly improve the way this works for people, there are solutions out there.

And I think that by having some steadfastness by saying that we are going to change the situation, we are going to disrupt the status quo, we are going to end homelessness for one population at a time in Santa Cruz, I think that’s required.

And also having some process by which to keep the work going. Because there are times when we get downhearted. There are times when something discouraging happens. There are times when the resources externally run low. And having some process to keep the work chugging and to show bright spots and progress along the way, I think is really key to doing it. So that’s what we’re in it for. We genuinely think that this can get a lot better than it is.

[MUSIC] 

KMG: This episode was part of Santa Cruz Local’s Solutions to Homelessness series

See the show notes for links to more stories in this series. We answered readers’ questions on how landlords can rent to people who are homeless in our county. We also published the initial results of our survey on Santa Cruz County residents’ views on homelessness.

In our previous episode and on our website, we have stories of people who live outside.

So much time and love went into today’s episode. I went to Bakersfield. I went to a homeless shelter and listened to people who live and work there. I also had hours of Zoom meetings with people who worked on Kern County’s Built for Zero approach. 

We do this work because we love Santa Cruz County. We’re trying to understand successful responses to our county’s biggest problems. Hopefully, you find this work interesting, trustworthy and uplifting. We hope our work inspires you to get involved.

This work takes time and money. 

All of Santa Cruz Local’s work is free. We are supported by our members. Our members donate starting at $9 a month or $99 a year.

Please support local journalism with a membership today. Go to santacruzlocal DOT org SLASH membership.

The link is in our show notes.

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[MUSIC]

Thank you to all our members. Thank you especially to our highest-level members.

  • Elizabeth and David Doolin
  • Fran Goodwin
  • Jim Weller
  • Debra Szeicei
  • Chris Neklason
  • Patrick Reilly
  • Cove Britton
  • Craig Rowell and Cory Ray 
  • And Jacob Meyberg Guzman

Thanks to Trimpot for the music.

Thank you also to Santa Cruz Local’s Stephen Baxter. He contributed reporting to this episode.

I’m Kara Meyberg Guzman.

Thanks for listening to Santa Cruz Local.

[email protected] | Website | + posts

Kara Meyberg Guzman is the CEO and co-founder of Santa Cruz Local. ​Prior to Santa Cruz Local, she served as the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s managing editor. She has a biology degree from Stanford University and lives in Santa Cruz.