Problem 1: A lack of transparency and metrics
Public spending on homeless services in Santa Cruz County is essentially a top-down system that starts with a group called a Continuum of Care that tries to prioritize programs and spending.
Each California county is part of a Continuum of Care that coordinates a regional system of services for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Stakeholders in homeless services, elected leaders and their staff are often included in the group.
Each Continuum of Care:
- Develops and supports a system of housing and service programs.
- Operates the Homeless Management Information System, an internal database of service recipients and other information.
- Designs plans to apply for state money and ways to spend it.
A 2023 map shows Continuums of Care in California and annual funding estimates from fiscal years 2018 to 2021. (California Interagency Council on Homelessness)
With those priorities expressed, county and city staff apply for competitive and restrictive state grants.
- At least $21.4 million was spent on homeless services in Santa Cruz County in fiscal year 2019-2020, according to public records obtained by Santa Cruz Local.
- At least $77.5 million was spent on homeless services in the county in fiscal year 2020-2021, records state.
Some of the money crossed fiscal years or had to be spent by a certain time. Most of it was for specific services, such as for youth or for emergency shelter or “coordinated entry” such as maintaining the Homeless Management Information System. Other grant money was spent on office supplies (at least $1.53 million in fiscal year 2020-21) or “communications” for public relations staff to publicize homeless services spending and progress (at least $398,000 in fiscal year 2020-21).
Most of that money was managed by the County of Santa Cruz. One reason the spending is not transparent is that the county’s accounting system does not separate homeless services spending from other expenditures.
There is no single code for homeless services in the county’s auditing system, and the services span county departments and divisions.
“I think that absent that, you end up with not a very clear picture of how the money is spent,” said Rayne Perez, the County of Santa Cruz’s homeless services coordinator from January 2016 to August 2021.
“I had hoped that over time there would be a way to streamline the county’s budget system so that there could be a way to just roll all that up once easily. But there really is not,” Perez said in a recent interview. “The public has a right to know how the money is spent.”
Broad homeless-services outcomes are similarly opaque in Santa Cruz County.
Each state grant typically requires periodic written updates back to the state about how and when money was spent and its outcomes. Outcomes could include how many people spent a night in a shelter or how many families remained housed because their back rent was covered by rental assistance. But those outcomes for specific contracts are not compiled and made public.
Without those metrics, it’s not clear whether, how or why unhoused people are becoming housed or which services are more effective than others in Santa Cruz County.
“If you can’t even track the expenditures in a systemic way, I think it would be hard to track outcomes in a systemic way,” Perez said. “I think that the county would be very hard pressed to demonstrate outcomes. Because without the proper tracking systems, you can’t,” Perez said.
When Santa Cruz County supervisors adopted a three-year plan to address homelessness, adopted in March 2021, the project was supposed to include a public, online dashboard to track metrics that address homelessness. That dashboard is not yet online.
County leaders have provided six-month updates on the plan’s execution at county supervisors’ meetings.
Larry Imwalle, the City of Santa Cruz’s homelessness response manager, said in February that city staff were working on improved ways to track homeless services spending.
“That first step is building out a comprehensive homeless services budget for the city that spans every department. And that gives us the tools to begin to track specific areas so that we can start to look at it in these ways and compare over time,” Imwalle said. “Understanding where the resources are being spent — towards what purposes towards what outcomes, that’s about data driven decision making. And so it’s an important tool,” Imwalle said.
Problem 2: The tension of short- and long-term goals
When leaders try to deal with homelessness, there is often a tension of what to spend on people’s immediate needs — like hygiene, food, rehabilitation and temporary shelter — and what to spend on longer-term solutions that get people into homes.
Some examples of longer-term solutions include rental assistance through vouchers, case managers, housing navigators and building new permanent supportive housing for people with disabilities.
There is a “tension of whether to respond to emergencies, or plan and invest long-term so that people stop becoming homeless and stay housed,” said Randy Morris, director of Santa Cruz County’s Human Services Department, in a county supervisors meeting this year. “That tension will keep going, and our job as staff is to share those tradeoffs.”
Also, leaders often focus policies on large, unmanaged homeless camps that only represent a small fraction of homeless people in the county, Morris has said.
“Too often, there are very reactionary and myopic solutions put forward that don’t take into account the full scope of the puzzle that needs to be put together. This issue isn’t going to be solved by just identifying a parcel, just identifying better outreach, just identifying one-time money and too much of the work that we’ve been doing has just been based on that,” Morris said in an August 2021 supervisors meeting.
Morris said he hoped the county’s three-year plan to address homelessness would address the deeper issues.