Santa Cruz’s new Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program members tested an idea on a group gathered downtown Friday: Youth homelessness is unacceptable and should be addressed immediately.
“We should be housing every youth we see. We should not be walking and stepping over the youth that are lying down or standing around who are homeless,” Santa Cruz County Human Services senior analyst Najeeb Kamil told a standing room-only crowd of more than 60 in a Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History conference room.
“We should be interacting with them, we should be engaging them and thinking about, ‘How can I personally, in Santa Cruz County, contribute to this cause.’ ‘How can I end youth homelessness on an individual basis.’”
Such a perspective may have helped push Santa Cruz County into the final 10 communities nationwide selected from 130 applicants for the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project. Looking to find new solutions for youth homelessness, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development granted a total of $33 million toward the 10 grantees to design and test strategies to end the problem.
Santa Cruz’s share amounts to $2.2 million from the two-year renewable grant. A group of partnered local agencies, lead by Encompass Community Services, is aiming to bring fragmented youth programs under an umbrella that is “culturally fitting and compassionate, unified and comprehensive,” according to its grant application.
Another aim of the project will be to change community perceptions about youth homelessness. Sarai Love Jackson, 17, was one of several Youth Advisory Board members who shared their views on homelessness with the crowd. Jackson both sang and read her own poetry, ending with a declaration, “I’m strong, I’m beautiful and I’m smart. And I’m a foster kid.”
For Chad Platt, a member of the new program’s Youth Advisory Board and a formerly homeless Encompass employee, one of the most exciting developments is the federal grant’s requirement that the youth board members review spending on any initiatives.
“We know that youth homelessness is preventable and solvable,” Platt said. “We hope to shift from this mindset that youth and young adult homelessness is an acceptable reality, to an urgent and solvable matter.”
Program partners submitted a draft plan to carry out the effort in July and are working on a second draft for an October submission. Related new homeless youth initiatives are unlikely to kick in before next year, organizers said.
Among the audience were Theresa Johnson and partner Corey Fromille, who arrived in Santa Cruz two months earlier for Johnson to study urban sociology and education in the UC Santa Cruz’s graduate program. The two said they were immediately struck by the level of homelessness locally and decided to get involved.
“I think we had this idea, like, coming to California and a beach town and there’s so much tourism here and people come here to vacation,” Johnson said. “But then, as a part of the community, why are people coming here to vacation when we don’t have homes for people. It was just really surprising.”
A homeless census and point-in-time count conducted across Santa Cruz County in January with a heightened focus on identifying homeless youth showed a near doubling of homeless youth under age 25, compared to the 2015 census.
Of the 588 young homeless people identified, just 2 percent reported having shelter. The younger age group can be difficult to track, said Susan Paradise, program manager for Encompass’ transitional-age youth services division.
“A lot of it’s not seen, I think, with young people,” Paradise said. “They’ll be trying to sleep on someone’s couch for a while and who knows what’s happening in that environment. Any time, they can be asked to leave, or their stuff can disappear.”
Program leaders, including the youth advisory board, have established a series of four goals to address: housing; community connections; education and employment; and prevention and diversion.
Encompass is working with the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, Housing Authority, county Human Services, Family and Child Services, youth and adult probation and other partners to devise initiatives.