The Reality of Homelessness in Santa Cruz

The following is a summary of the second phase of a study on Homelessness in Santa Cruz conducted by Faculty from the UCSC Community Studies, Sociology, and Psychology Departments, as well as the Center for Statistical Research, in partnership with Civinomics. The study was funded through the Social Sciences Division. This is part 2 of a 4 part series previewing the full study. (see part 1 here)

Phase 2 of the study focuses on the individuals experiencing homelessness within Santa Cruz. The data that follows is taken from 114 in-depth interviews with self-identified homeless individuals within the City limits (it is estimated that on any given night there are at least 900 people within the city experiencing homelessness, according to the 2013 homeless census). Respondents were interviewed at all types of service sites, food giveaways, in high traffic areas such as the beach, downtown, and the San Lorenzo Riverwalk; and at homeless encampments near Harvey West Park/Pogonip, and the Cemetery. Roughly two thirds of those interviewed were initially approached at either a service site or regularly hosted food/clothes giveaway.

Keep in mind that unlike the biannual homelessness census, this data was collected over the course of 7 months, not one day. It is not meant to meet the data requirements of a federal agency, but is meant to dig deeper into causality and characteristics of the local homeless population.

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Homelessness in Santa Cruz is increasing. And while there is a lot of disagreement as to why, the impacts are felt across the entire community. Much of the debate centers around responsibility, specifically who is responsible for addressing this problem and what should be done. Very few people advocate for not helping those genuinely in need, but it’s hard to tell when that need is genuine. Furthermore, many locals have expressed caution at providing too much support in the form of services because they fear that it will draw more homeless individuals to our community.

Again, this all comes down to responsibility. Santa Cruz, like all communities, is committed to helping our most vulnerable members, but we cannot help everyone, nor should we, in the face of a national problem. We simply don’t have the resources. And this is when politics and civics are most difficult, and the most important, because difficult decisions need to be made about who we help and why, given our constraints.

This study is intended is provide greater insight into this problem, so that these decisions can be made from an informed perspective, hopefully resulting in a better outcome for our community.

The first series of questions focused on basic demographics, such as age, gender, and the length of time that respondents have been experiencing homelessness.

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image (9)To the best of our knowledge our data is somewhat skewed toward older respondents. This can be attributed to a number of factors, including selection bias, frequency of utilizing services, and willingness to speak with a researcher. However, younger individuals experiencing homeless tend to be a much less visible part of the population, and given our methodology, this group was simply harder to reach.

Questions 5-7 dealt with “feeling safe”, and asked respondents why they did, or did not feel safe being homeless in Santa Cruz.

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I have taken the liberty of going through all of the responses (it was an open ended question) and tagging them based upon subject and key word. A summary of these responses is shown below.

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The next section of the survey dealt with being “local” or not. Respondents were asked whether or not they consider Santa Cruz to be their “hometown”, and for those that didn’t consider it so, we asked how long they have been here, and where else they have been homeless. We also asked them where they initially became homeless.

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We then asked about causality, asking each respondent to elaborate as to why they believe they became homeless.

Respondents were given a range of pre-selected options, but could provide an “other” option if they choose. Fully 38 percent of those who responded selected “other option” and gave a unique response. The responses ranged from answers that should have been included in the above chart, like “I drank too much”, and “divorce”, to very unique responses like becoming involved in a cult, having their house burn down, and even just “capitalism”. Though many of these responses mentioned housing costs in some form or another.

The next part of the survey focused on behavior, asking respondents a series of questions about their daily and nightly habits, as well as information related to their wellness. Below are a series of graphs detailing these answers, some of them are the result of branching within the survey and are indicated as such.

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The final series of questions delves into how those experiencing homelessness perceive themselves in relation to Santa Cruz, both its people, and as a place.

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We also directly asked respondents if they believe Santa Cruz attracts homeless people, and why.

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The “why” responses were collected in the form of open ended comments, however we have sorted them based upon key word and response type, and grouped them into categories. Keep in mind that the percentages for each response type were taken as a percentage of the total number of responses, and therefore exceed 100 percent when added together. This is because respondents could have mentioned multiple reasons in their comments.

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We did ask many more questions, and those responses will be published along with the rest of the data when we release the full study. However, these are some of the main points of interest. Should you have a question about the data, the methodology, or even an interest in another question we may have asked, please do leave a comment.

Also, if you haven’t already, please review and vote on the Strategic Plan to End Homelessness, which you can do 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.



  1. John Grunder says:

    Very in-depth results for an expanding problem. I found the response to the pan-handling question interesting, given that most of the homeless responding indicated they also had no regular job (keeping in mind that quite a few individuals might be homeless due to expensive housing in the area, and not because of lack of working).

    It would be interesting to cross-reference how many long-term homeless in the area have also lived homeless in the area for the same length of time; and if so do they also claim to have been diagnosed with mental illnesses? This might provide a clue as to just how difficult it will be to reduce that section of the homeless population.

    Put another way, can we actually produce support programs that focus on getting people out of poverty, or are we just talking about producing programs that continue to support those that have no plans to change their life styles (mental illnesses not included).

    • Mental health is really hard issue to deal with politically. I for one think we need expanded day services, like those provided by MHCAN. But that is a hard sell for nearby neighbors and downtown businesses, even though I think it would have a measurable, net positive impact. Beyond that the default mental institutions are now our shelters and jails, which woefully ineffective and expensive.

  2. Jim Weller says:

    It’s an interesting study, and contains no surprises – not for me, anyway, as I’m a faith-based homeless shelter project organizer, and I know many local homeless people quite well. I am puzzled, though, that you included an opinionated statement I find quite questionable: “Santa Cruz, like all communities, is committed to helping our most vulnerable members, but we cannot help everyone, nor should we . . .” It seems to me that we, here in Santa Cruz, could make a much stronger, broader, and more effective commitment to helping our most vulnerable neighbors, not all of whom lack any housing at all, but all of whom are impoverished in one way or another, to one extent or another. I disagree strongly that “we cannot help everyone,” and to say, “nor should we” is the antithesis of the attitude that a compassionate, morally responsible community should take – especially since we are, on the whole, a wealthy community endowed with more than enough resources to provide for at least a minimally decent quality of life for everyone. I say, on the contrary, yes, we can. And yes, we should.

  3. Jay Thomas says:

    I would be very interested in reading more about the methodology used in collecting and analyzing these surveys. I would also be grateful for a chance to see more specifics about the data, such as the specific number of responses to each question and the way responses to open-ended questions were grouped together. Thank you very much

    • These are just some of the study highlights. We will be publishing the full study, including a comprehensive overview of our methodology, in a month or two (I wish I could be more specific but I can’t in working with academic partners). There was some branching in the survey, so not every respondent answered every question.

  4. Ed Zachary says:

    I believe Mr. Weller, in his comment above, has misinterpreted the author’s comment about not being able to help everyone, nor should we try to help everyone. The author was referring to the broad scope of homelessness on a national basis, and certainly Santa Cruz should not take responsibility for solving the national homeless problem. Nor, for example, should it attempt to solve the regional problem by doing things like (in the extreme), sending buses out to round up the homeless in San Jose and bring them to Santa Cruz to help them here. Santa Cruz is stressed merely helping the homeless that already are here.

  5. Bob Smythe says:

    Your graphs on the demographics of the homeless (age and how long have you experienced homelessness) are hard to interpret because for some reason you’ve stacked the visual bars from greatest to least. Thus the bars for ages 55-64 and 65+ are placed between the bars for 25-34 and 18-24. The purpose of a graph is to easily read data at a glance, not to look tidy. These both require reading the small print to interpret which color reflects which age group or time homeless. Is there any way you can make them more useful as a graph, more readable at a glance by stacking the bars by demographic, not by length?

  6. Daniel Min says:

    What is your conclusion and follow up study? Any leading solutions do this multifactorial issue? Also, where did funding come from? Thanks in advance!

  7. Cristine peterson says:

    Without clearly stating the methodology and research framework, I’m left guessing what your intentions are behind this study.

    It seems like the person who came up with these questions isn’t aware of how they are a vital contributor to the social context that produces homelessness.

    • We have been very forthcoming about our methodology, did you not read part 1 of the blog post? Furthermore, these questions were designed in consultation with faculty from 4 separate departments, including Community Studies and Sociology. I can assure you that these individuals are well aware of the social context that surrounds homelessness.

  8. Sandi Kaufman says:

    You may have asked, but I would like to know the percentage who receive monthly disability checks, income from family, etc., i.e., all sources of income other than panhandling and include age, how long on disability, why and age.

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