How Santa Cruz Perceives the Homeless

The following is a summary of the first phase of a study on Homelessness in Santa Cruz conducted by the UCSC Community Studies, Sociology, and Psychology Departments, as well as the Center for Statistical Research, in partnership with Civinomics. This is part 1 of a 4 part series previewing the full study.

Phase 1 of the study focuses on how the housed population of Santa Cruz perceives homelessness, and is based off 419 interviews of housed residents within the city limits. The interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish.

Also, if you haven’t already please vote on the Strategic Plan to End Homelessness, which is being considered by both the County Board of Supervisors and Santa Cruz City Council today. Vote and comment below.

Adopt the Santa Cruz County Community Strategic Plan to Prevent, Reduce, and Eventually End Homelessness

Adopt the countywide strategic plan to prevent, reduce, and eventually end homelessness.


Homelessness is a very real, very tangible thing is the eyes of Santa Cruz. It’s a issue that many of us are uncomfortable talking about, for a variety of reasons. Many of us have strong opinions about the causes of homelessness, or why the number of people experiencing homelessness locally continues to increase, and perhaps fewer know what to do about it.

To better understand the community’s perception of homelessness, we interviewed 419 housed residents of the City of Santa Cruz and asked them about all of these topics. We asked them questions about their personal experiences with individuals experiencing homelessness. We asked them to estimate the proportion of the homeless population that pan handles, that suffers from mental illness, that regularly does drugs or alcohol, among other characteristics. We asked them to rank how significant of an issue homelessness is in relation to other issues like water and transportation. We even asked them if they had any ideas for reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness.

Many had trouble answering at times, but most were glad to have taken the survey.

The first series of questions asked respondents to estimate what proportion of the homeless population in Santa Cruz engages in the following activities or possess the following characteristics.

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 10.27.37 PM

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows the distribution of responses with the percentage estimates of a particular characteristic of the homeless population. On the left hand side you can see the listed characteristics, while the percentages are listed on top. For example, when asked “In your opinion, what percentage/proportion of homeless people in Santa Cruz are Addicted to drugs and/or alcohol?” 117 respondents estimated that between 21-40% of the total homeless population is addicted.

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 10.35.21 PMScreen Shot 2015-03-23 at 10.36.11 PM

The best evidence we have to test the accuracy of these estimates is the Biannual Homeless Census, which asks many of these same questions.

Respondents were then read a series of statements and then asked whether they agreed or disagreed:

  1. Most homeless people are homeless because of a lifestyle choice. (79 – 21% Disagreed)
  2. Most homeless people don’t want to work. (84 – 16% Disagreed)
  3. Substance abuse is the most significant factor in causing people to become homeless. (55 – 45% Disagreed)
  4. Untreated mental illness is the most significant factor in causing people to become homeless. (56-44% Agreed)
  5. Most homeless people are victims of bad luck. (52-48% Disagreed)
  6. Unaffordable housing and a changing economy are major causes of homelessness. (78-22% Agreed)

Respondents were then asked how significant of a problem they believed homeless is in Santa Cruz

This was followed by a series of questions that asked them to compare how important homelessness was to other topics, including the quality of public schools, transportation, and economic development. Respondents were asked if each topic was more important than homelessness, of equal importance, or of lesser importance.

  • 53 percent answered that Our Water Supply was more important than Homelessness
  • A majority of respondents answered that the following topics are of equal importance to homelessness: Quality of Local Public Schools, Economic Development/Jobs, Housing Affordability, Crime and Public Safety, Drug Use, and Environmental Protection.
  • 56 percent answered that Traffic and Transportation was less important than Homelessness.

We then asked a series of more general questions, some of which are highlighted below.

Respondents were then read a series of statements and asked whether choose from the following: Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree.



We also asked respondents how often they encountered people experiencing homelessness in their daily life, and what was the nature of these encounters.


I have left out a couple of questions which will be released with the full study, but I have highlighted what I think to be some of the most key and telling data points. However, in the final portion of the survey we asked respondents the following question: “In your opinion, what do you think is the most important thing the Santa Cruz community can do to reduce homelessness?”

342 people chose to leave comments in response to this questions. Although they vary widely, some common themes emerged. Many respondents mentioned the lack of affordable housing in Santa Cruz as contributing to the problem, and offered ideas to help, including tiny houses, a permanent encampment, and more dorm style housing. Many respondents also mentioned the need for more mental health services, and drug treatment. However, many also acknowledged that this is a problem far beyond the scope of Santa Cruz, stating that we need more state and federal assistance. A full review of the comments will be published with the entire study following academic review.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which breaks down the data from 114 interviews with individuals experiencing homelessness.


  1. Kathy Haber says:

    A really important perception “housed” Santa Cruz residents have, is that most of the homeless have recently come here from someplace else. This is very important in how they are regarded and whether the local residents accept responsibility for caring for them. I don’t know yet if you addressed this perception in your study.

    • greenrobert says:

      That is addressed in question 2, in which respondents were asked to estimate what percentage of the homeless population come from outside the County. See the second chart after Figure 1.

  2. Doug Engfer says:

    It would be helpful to see a concise “gap analysis” of the questions that went to the public’s perception of homeless demographics compared to the most-recent homeless census.

  3. This is a fascinating reflective view of Santa Cruz homelessness, demonstrating local perception, but the real answers remain a mystery. I’d like to think that one of the following phases of this project will elucidate this known unknown. Many people in our community have strong opinions on the questions in this summary but there is scant (actual) data to authentically back it up. I applaud the partners of this study and look forward to seeing what is forthcoming.

  4. keith ford says:

    I work 7 days a week and am homeless…clean,respectful and a local man of 50 yrs here…ucsc has ruined the rentel market…I ck CL twice a day…..sleeping in my car and about ready to move to mexico or Alaska….cant find a room as a normal,clean hard working guy,,there is a lot more homeless than 2000 folks,,

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