As We See It: The mayor and the homeless

Over the past week or so, probably the most referenced topic in our popular Letters to the Editor column has been newly installed Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane's public statements about homelessness in the city.

Lane's December inaugural speech on that topic was reprinted twice in its entirety in a paid advertisement sponsored by a local supporter and benefactor of the Homeless Services Center on River Street, a few blocks from downtown.

In the speech, and in subsequent comments, Lane has made a case, citing other innovative programs in the country, for building permanent housing for homeless people, rather than simply continuing the revolving door through temporary shelters.

The reaction, at least to Sentinel stories on the topic and in Letters to the Editor, has been overwhelmingly negative, although a few residents and activists are now sending emails to us in support of Lane's proposals.

The criticism can be mostly aggregated into two themes: Santa Cruz can't afford it and the mayor's words and possible actions will only encourage even more homeless people to come to Santa Cruz.

Critics have said Lane's proposals would mean more transients, more mentally ill people, more public inebriates, and more drug abusers on city streets and in city parks and open spaces.

Stepping outside the controversy, however, we have to ask: Why would anyone be surprised or offended? Lane has long been an advocate for homeless services, putting his own

time and service behind his words.


Lane comes out of the city's long tradition of liberal/social justice politics. It's not as if he ran for office hiding his progressive credentials. For his part, Lane says he also recognizes that voters in 2010 demonstrated they want something done about the local economy and want local government to become more responsive and business-friendly. Lane acknowledges that the 2010 election marked a break with progressive politics of old.

So why bring up homelessness again?

Lane insists his motives are that working on homelessness will also eventually help save the city money in addition to helping local people find basic shelter. He believes getting the chronically homeless into some kind of low-cost permanent housing -- subsidized by federal, state and private funding -- will reduce the toll on public safety agencies and the court system -- and help improve the business climate by getting people off the streets.

It's hard to argue that if a way can be found to house people living on the margins, people who often are out of sight and out of mind of those of us who have permanent homes and incomes and community life, then it isn't the right thing to do.

But without corresponding drug, alcohol and mental health programs, there's a real question whether providing permanent housing would make much of a shift in chronic homelessness.

And in 2012 California, there won't be much money forthcoming for many programs like that.

Lane's proposals have clearly hit a nerve and if nothing else have revived a debate raging for decades in Santa Cruz. Are the city's well-known tolerance, compassion and services only exacerbating the situation of homelessness here?

Lane probably would have been wiser to wait a few months before relaunching this debate. But he didn't and now it's playing out in the public arena, as it should.