SANTA CRUZ - Mayor Don Lane says the biggest step the community can take to reduce homelessness is to fund more low-cost permanent housing rather than focus primarily on providing temporary shelter, treatment programs and meals.
After returning to the mayor's seat for the first time in 20 years, Lane told a packed City Council Chamber in December he would make ending homelessness his top aim in 2012. Coming on the heels of a year marked by his predecessor's economic initiatives, Lane said his push would not come at the expense of business development, budget balancing, environmental issues, public safety and other concerns shared by council colleagues.
Now, a month later, Lane has outlined how he'll go about tackling homelessness while still leading the seven-member body toward raising revenue and grappling with the loss of redevelopment funding.
Lane acknowledged that voters in 2010 overwhelmingly voted for a trio of candidates - Lynn Robinson, Hilary Bryant and David Terrazas - whose goals closely mirrored those of incoming Mayor Ryan Coonerty: to revive the local economy while making government more responsive, effective and business-friendly.
The election's results demonstrated a break from a previous generation of progressive politics steeped in social and environmental activism, a generation Lane helped to define. Now, a year later, Lane has returned the council's attention to what has for
many years been a divisive issue among homeless services providers, businesses owners and public safety advocates.
"During the last election, there were new priorities elevated, and I totally respect that," Lane said.
But the mayor believes working on homelessness and economic issues actually go hand in hand - that getting chronically homeless people into housing will improve the rest of their lives in ways that reduce the toll on society. His approach will center around getting more homeless people into "permanent supportive housing," which can be a mix of new and in-fill development, as well as existing apartment complexes or individual units - all subsidized by federal, state and private assistance.
Lane, 55, wants to shift people's thinking about how to address the problem. A longtime volunteer and board member of the Homeless Services Center, he hopes to encourage nonprofits, churches, foundations and private donors to consider subsidizing permanent units rather than, or in addition to, more traditional ways of helping.
Terrazas agreed working to end homelessness doesn't have to mean ignoring the economy.
"It's refreshing that Don is looking at a balanced approach to addressing the city's
financial crisis but also addressing the real needs of the people who live here," Terrazas said. "I don't look at this as being a single issue."
Christine Sippl, senior health services manager for the county and director of its Homeless Persons Health Project, welcomes the effort to grow permanent housing. She said providing low-cost units often costs taxpayers less than frequent hospital visits, arrests and jail time experienced by chronically homeless people dealing with disabilities, mental health issues or substance abuse.
"It can be cheaper on a daily basis to get them into housing than to look the other way," she said.
The Homeless Persons Health Project supports 90 units of permanent housing now and there is less than 10 percent turnover, Sippl said. Tenants pay a third of their monthly rent - some can apply for Social Security or other income - while the other portion is subsidized by federal Housing and Urban Development funds or other assistance.
The organization would like to increase the number of permanent units by acquiring small apartment buildings or other properties through private business deals or with nonprofit funding. The project will also work with individual property owners to accept subsidized rent.
In addition to the homelessness campaign, Lane will also preside over economic priorities.
The city plans to form task forces that will explore a revenue-generating ballot measure in November and review the city's competitiveness, including studying whether traffic impact fees and other costs are impediments to business. Terrazas, who served on council's Ad Hoc Budget Task Force last year with Lane, supports the moves, which are designed to help the city tackle a deficit expected to exceed $5 million by 2014.
"It's an exciting opportunity for us to dig deep into those issues to see how city programs measure up with other cities throughout the state," Terrazas said.
The city also must figure out how to deal with the end of redevelopment, as approved by the state Supreme Court last month. Because the Redevelopment Agency has been the primary framework for stimulating economic development since the 1989 earthquake, the city has to determine how to support major projects and pick up costs for downtown security, business facade improvement and other programs partially funded by the agency.
"These are all things that we all feel a lot of pressure to do, but we won't have that funding source to do," Lane said.
As mayor, a position that rotates every year among the top vote-getters from previous elections, Lane has the prerogative to set meeting agendas and some procedures.
He plans to hold more meetings this year, with study sessions on major issues during the first Tuesday of some months. Regular meetings, usually on the second and fourth Tuesdays, will be run differently, too.
Unless there is a big turnout for a particular topic, Lane said he will lean toward giving members of the public three minutes - rather than two allowed by his predecessor - to comment on specific items or speak during oral communications, a time set aside for comment about things not on the agenda.
Lane said he is likely to keep oral communications at about 5 p.m., a time set by former Mayor Coonerty, but Lane said he will not disrupt a discussion in progress to hear the unrelated public testimony.
Also new this year, City Manager Martín Bernal will provide regular progress reports, some of which will focus on how the city is working toward goals laid out in its first-ever strategic plan passed last year. There also will be more presentations about city services so residents have a broader understanding of how different departments work.