Crime, Homelessness Fuel Debate

Photo: Kayla Cytron-Thaler

Take Back Santa Cruz, others work to raise awareness and seek solutions to local violence and drug abuse.

By MAX LOPEZ

“Santa Cruz City doesn’t have an action plan,” Ken “SkinDog” Collins said as he walked on the San Lorenzo levee on a recent morning. “We have no real leader.”

Collins, a pro surfer and lifelong Santa Cruz resident, was one of the frustrated citizens who raised concerns about drug abuse, crime and discarded syringes during the City Council meeting March 12.

A recent surge in crime has revitalized talk about long-simmering controversies.  Some say Santa Cruz’s tolerance of homelessness is at the root of growing insecurity, while others work to maintain community services for the disenfranchised.

Collins finds himself at the crux of this controversy. He decided to take action after he found mounds of garbage and used syringes littering Cowell Beach, where he learned to surf. He has since become a member of Take Back Santa Cruz, a grassroots organization that aims to clean up the town’s drug and crime problems.

He can get behind the organization’s call for people to “grab some gloves and a bag and start picking up garbage,” he said, but he’s uncomfortable with the political aspects of  the group.

“The name ‘Take Back Santa Cruz’ is something I have a problem with,” he said. “When you say ‘take back,’ you’re insinuating that the town belongs to some people, not to everyone.”

Collins also said he doesn’t agree with the rhetoric he has seen on Facebook calling for ‘undesirables’ to be run out of town.

“The reason we have these issues is because someone else swept them onto us. We could sweep our problems into some other town, but then they will be hurting the way we are now,” he said. “I’d like to see Santa Cruz take the lead and figure out how to help these people.”

Vice Mayor Lynn Robinson is a co-founder of grassroots public safety organization, Santa Cruz Neighbors, which allies itself with Take Back Santa Cruz. Both organizations see the Homeless Services Center on Coral Street and the day services it provides as a big part of the problem.

“I’m convinced the services are not working,” Robinson told the Santa Cruz Sentinel recently. “That is not the kind of agency that is giving our community a good outcome.”

With the annual budget for social services on the table, City Council members are starting to distribute those funds. The city owns the shelter, and at the last council meeting Robinson suggested a decrease of $15,000 from its annual budget. More recently, Robinson told the Sentinel she is considering reducing day-services funding by $42,000.

In the same March 16 Sentinel article, Councilman Don Lane, a former Homeless Services Center board member and longtime supporter of such services, was asked to respond to proposed budget cuts.

“The Homeless Services Center is not the problem,” Lane told the Sentinel. The concept that “reducing funding will make things better is a dubious assumption.”

“Out of anger and frustration over crime and violence,” he told the Voice in a March 16 e-mail, some people are looking for simple answers, and groups to blame.  My experience requires me to resist that approach.

“We need to address problems of crime and violence with facts and approaches that are proven to work — not just rush to do things that sound good to frustrated people.”

Lane and Councilman Micah Posner are members of  Together for a Safe Santa Cruz, a group of community leaders troubled by animosity towards the homeless. A group petition  asks residents to avoid “scapegoating … the most vulnerable populations in our community,” and instead “… work together in transparent and solution-focused collaboration for a healthy and safe Santa Cruz County.”

Analicia Cube, co-founder of Take Back Santa Cruz and a business owner born and raised in Santa Cruz, said the group is not trying to criminalize homelessness by scrutinizing the shelter.

“There are serious criminals hiding under the umbrella of homelessness,” she said in a phone interview with the Voice. “Our objective is to take criminals out from under that umbrella.

“There are really scary people benefiting from those services. The way we are going about helping the homeless is actually uncompassionate. Many people are blindfolded by their compassion.”

Take Back Santa Cruz’s next step is to file a negligence lawsuit against the city, Cube told the Sentinel, for what the group considers avoidance of the issues surrounding the center, evidenced by the steady increase in calls for police about criminal activity at the shelter.

“Many factors influence crime that do not pertain to the homeless community.” said Chris Johnson-Lyons, executive director of the county’s Community Action Board.

In her 27 years leading the private nonprofit, Johnson-Lyons has seen “many ups and downs of social and political responses to the needs of the lower class in our community,” she told the Voice last week in a phone interview.

She said fear and confusion are fueling recent reaction, and people are looking for someone to blame.

“The assumption that the group of homeless in Santa Cruz is responsible for higher levels of crime is erroneous,” Johnson-Lyons said. “That point of view is really misguided. The Homeless Shelter Services is not part of the problem, but part of the solution.”

One of the services under her supervision is The Shelter Project, which offers emergency rent assistance to avoid homelessness and a motel-voucher program for people so ill they require health-services supervision.

“After 48 years, … the Community Action Board remains committed and ready to work with anyone … ready to look for effective and sustainable solutions.”

Partway through his walk on the levee, “SkinDog” Collins stopped and had a short discussion with a bearded man sitting by the walkway, a bedroll strapped to his backpack.

Collins often talks with homeless people, he said, as he picks up garbage around town. He quickly learned this man was indeed homeless, and asked him for any insight he might have into the prevalence of drug-related crime in the homeless community.

Homeless people aren’t solely to blame for drug abuse and related crimes. Many drug users, drug dealers, and thieves are homeowners, he said. Collins thanked the man and continued down the path.

“That guy told me something I knew, but I haven’t brought that up at a City Council meeting yet,” Collins said. “Every step I’m taking on this whole deal, I’m picking up clues and re-evaluating my stance.”