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Photographs by Stephen Laufer

Sowing the Seeds of Change: Homeless Garden Project intern Tina at work.

Without a Net

The bottom is falling out of Santa Cruz as county programs and innovative but underfunded nonprofits struggle through record deficits and a bleak economy. What can be done to save our social safety net, and does anyone have the guts to do it?

By Sarah Phelan

RECENTLY, JOHN DIPIAZZA did what lots of Americans are doing right about now: he fell on hard times, times so hard that he ended up homeless even though he still holds a part-time job.

Now, having been down the "down and out" road a time or two before, DiPiazza knew he was eligible for food stamps. And as he filled out the county's food stamp application, he noticed the rule that says if the county thinks you might be eligible, you get an interview immediately and food stamp benefits within three days.

"But then I was told I'd have to wait at least 10 days," says DiPiazza, who was told by an office supervisor that the problem wasn't a lack of food stamps, but cuts in staff.

Yes, admitted the supe, her office wasn't in compliance with the three-day law, but given the state budget deficit, she wasn't expecting the staffing/food stamp processing situation to improve anytime soon.

"I thought the three-day rule was put in place so people who actually needed to eat or feed their children wouldn't get lost in the system," DiPiazza told Metro Santa Cruz. "And while this is about my needs, more importantly it's about hundreds of people who are being denied due process for real basics, people who may, unlike me, be afraid to pursue the issue because they're mentally unwell, or because they're a non-English speaker, or because they've just lost spirit."

Curious to find out if yawning rifts were opening up that fast in the social services safety net, we called Claudine Wildman, the county's Benefit Services division director, who confirmed that, "Yes, thanks to budget cuts, the food stamp office has two less eligibility workers, so on occasion we are not able to meet the three-day emergency period."

Wildman also blamed the situation on heightened demand and awareness of just who's eligible for stamps.

"Due to economic downturn, our office saw an 19 percent increase in food stamp applications in 01-02, and a 26 percent increase in 02-03, over the 01-02 increase. It's grown quite a bit," she said. If you cut away the bureaucratic numberspeak, that means the number of people who need food stamps is up nearly 50 percent since 2001, which translates into a crushing strain on county services.

"People have the right to file for a fair hearing, if they believe we have not followed our own guidelines, but given the current state crisis, I don't anticipate the state will be providing us with additional funds to hire more staff back so we can process claims within three days. We lose funding, but the needs for our services go up. It's a Catch-22. We're waiting to see how the final budget recommendations play out."

From Taxes to Axes

Wildman's not the only one holding her breath. With sales revenue down, the county's utility tax repealed and the dotcom fat long gone, social-service providers know their programs are at high risk once the budget ax starts swinging. And since the state deficit--expected to be as high as $35 billion--has already triggered massive hand-wringing at every level of local government, it most certainly will.

Even cherished local social programs like the Homeless Garden Project and the kid-friendly Above the Line that don't receive funding directly from the city coffers are feeling the economic chill as charitable donations shrink.

Meanwhile, demand for all of these programs continues to rise as Santa Cruz County's safety net strains at the seams. Paul Brindel, program director of the Community Action Board's Shelter Project, estimates that about 10,000 people were homeless at some point last year in Santa Cruz County, with 3,500 permanently unhoused.

Astronomical rent, economic downturns, lack of health insurance (a reality for 41 million Americans nationwide), serious physical or mental illness (even for those who are insured), drug or alcohol addiction and domestic violence are just some of the factors swelling the tide of people dumpster diving, couch surfing and sleeping in vans and on levees. And as the economy tanks ever deeper, locals both housed and unhoused lie awake wondering just how they'll cope if and when they lose their minds, jobs and health. As a counselor at a local homeless program put it, "Washing your body in the sink of the public bathroom is just the tip of the iceberg."

Locally, Brindel has thrown himself into the effort to turn around this bleak situation with the onerously named Santa Cruz County Five-Year Strategic Homelessness Continuum of Care Plan, which lays out a strategy for reducing homelessness while maximizing federal funding.

Reading the Continuum of Care Plan you get a sense of how things could be--if we built more affordable housing, secured a living wage for all workers, halved the number of people turned away from shelters each year and better coordinated the care of people who are sick or have substance abuse problems.

"Understanding homelessness is the booby prize, because then comes the next question: So, what are you gonna do about it?" says Brindel. "It's so difficult to move out of being homeless, once you reach that point. You can't deal with homelessness in a vacuum."

First to step into this countywide vacuum was Santa Cruz, which voted to approve the Continuum of Care Plan, while warning that people shouldn't get their hopes up since the city has no money to spend on it.

Brindel, however, remains optimistic.

"What are hopes for? This is no slouch, this plan. We had the help of the top minds in the county. It's a damn good plan," he says. "Yes, it'll cost money. Yes, we'll have to build lots of houses, and yes, we'll have to fund services for the elderly, the ill and the disabled. And yes, it's complex--but not so complex that we can't do it."

At a time when national leaders are preoccupied with launching wars, state legislators are preoccupied with an unprecedented state deficit and local nonprofits already serving the homeless are left in fiscal limbo, those are fightin' words.

On the Front Lines

Once the home of Lighthouse Liquors, the building at 101 Washington St. now houses dried flower wreaths, birch hearts and beeswax candles, all the work of the interns and graduates of the Women's Organic Flower Enterprise, an offshoot of the Homeless Garden Project, which turns 13 this spring--a number it hopes will be lucky, in spite of the gloomy economic forecast.

"Despite a good downtown location, sales at the seasonal Holiday Store, which account for 25 percent of HGP's income, were down this Christmas," says executive director Kim Eabry, stressing that the project needs $30,000 to bridge operations between July and October."

Outside, HGP intern Tina, who had a successful career in probation and social services before she got breast cancer and her marriage fell apart, is filling a wheelbarrow with uprooted weeds.

"The garden therapy aspect is one of this program's greatest strengths," says Eabry. "And the learning of concrete skills, such as horticultural training, marketing and flower arranging," she adds, leading me through the workshop, where HGP grad Becky*, who became homeless after an earthquake destroyed her home and her relationship broke up, is showing Nina how to make a birch heart, while a cat dreams upside down on a worn wicker chair.

Tina, Becky and Mona both praise the program for providing a stress-free, safe, stabilizing and healing environment.

"The program is good, especially if you've had some sort of setback, be it mental or physical. It's a really good re-entry into being on a schedule, learning to abide [by] basic rules, and you have bosses who have been homeless so they are sympathetic," says Tina. "People say, 'Why don't they just get a job?' What I've found, and I used to have a successful career, is that when you take a beating, be it financial or physical or mental, it triggers a domino effect. You start to fall. It's hard to pull out, find a job and sell yourself, when you're not feeling good about yourself. Here, there's a lot of community support, but we need more. Like any nonprofit, it's always a struggle."

Mona, who suffers from schizophrenia, describes HGP as "an organic resource, a hub. For the first time I'm working around caring people. And if I didn't have this job, I wouldn't be able to keep my home."

But Becky and Tina wish HGP could come up with more creative housing solutions.

"This project needs to be able to pay people enough to not be homeless. Not doing that--by paying minimum wage $6.78 for only 20 hours a week-- we can be trained in organic farming, but can't not be homeless, unless the average rent goes down significantly," says Becky, while Tina muses, "Ideally it would be nice if there were some kind of housing arrangement associated with the Garden."

All of which is kind of ironic, since lack of housing is a large part of the reason they ended up at HGP in the first place.

"We'd like to be able to pay interns a living wage," says Eabry, "but they do get lots of additional benefits, such as substance abuse treatment programs, county mental health services, coordination with probation workers, and low cost health care and food stamps."

Money woes aside, Eabry wants to work more closely with local employers.

"There's a bit of a bias against homeless folks, but this project can show them real people with great skills, tremendous potential and a strong willingness to change," she says, noting that a HGP grad recently landed a job as a groundskeeper at UCSC.

No Strangers

A review of the United Way's Homeless 2000 census shows that over 60 percent of homeless individuals surveyed were born and raised in Santa Cruz or have spent more than 10 years in this community. Fifty percent of the homeless have children, but the city does not have a dedicated family shelter yet, and on any given night, only 50 percent of people in need of shelter are served.

Yup, there are plenty of sobering stats surrounding homelessness. Bonnie Schell, executive director of the Mental Health Client Action Network, reports that while nationwide 35 percent of the homeless are mentally ill, locally, that figure rises to 48 percent. Says Schell, "Many of our street kids are potential mental health patients, since 17 to 22 years is a transitional age when such problems develop."

And Suzanne Stone, executive director of Above the Line, a nonprofit which serves teens who have fallen through the cracks, notes that almost all her clients have substance abuse issues.

"Because of substance abuse, neglect, abuse, trauma, these kids are often way behind," says Stone. "They have missed so much school. So we offer small classes, lots of staff, basic skills and a work ethic. We ask the kids, 'What's your dream?' and we build on that. We're trying to do what good parents would: Give the kids education, health care, recreation and a sense of responsibility. We try to do many years of work in a short time."

But though Above the Line's day program is the only lifeline left for an increasing number of the county's homeless youth, there's no guarantee of funding to cover its $100,000 annual cost--a figure Stone says is getting harder to raise, owing to the flailing economy.

To make matters worse, Above the Line has lost $68,000 annually, thanks to the county's utility tax repeal, a loss that means case worker Homayun Etemadi can only do outreach once a week.

"Some of the kids on the street aren't covered by Medi-Cal, some are undocumented," Etemadi explains, as he walks the length of Pacific Avenue in search of kids in need of Above the Line's services. "All it takes is a parental health crisis, job loss, incarceration or death and the whole family can be on the street. We try to get the kids rental assistance, bridge the gap, and maintain their lifestyle."

Kids like Charles, 19, who is trying to raise money to fix his broken van, are already too old for Above the Line's "18 and younger" mandate, but Mandy*, 17, who is hanging out at the bus station and now lives in a foster home, was rescued from the street three years ago, when she was homeless and into shards (a strong and cheap form of speed) after her mother, a hardcore heroin addict, got put in jail.

"Kids will steal or run drugs or get pimpy," says Etemadi. "They don't think in moralistic terms. They're in survival mode. Getting pimped out is a definite reality for girls and boys. And the younger they are, the more likely they'll be approached."

Homeless shelters won't take boys under 18, Etemadi says, for fear their presence will make female victims of domestic violence uncomfortable, or that older men will abuse them.

With the lives of these kids at stake, it's not hard to see why Above the Line is committed to keeping its doors wide open, despite the dire financial situation.

"I currently work with 12 kids who don't have Medi-Cal," Etemadi says. "If I wasn't there, they'd have nobody."

Above the Line counselor Ameena Gier worries that kids left on the streets will turn to gangs for support.

"The gang is a culture, a root, an addiction, the family many of them never had, while Above the Line gives kids the space and time to think and hold their dreams until they are ready to walk into them," says Gier. "It doesn't matter what the dream is, but that they have one, that they still believe in the possibility of change."

All the more reason, says Community Action Board's Brindel, for Santa Cruz to support existing programs and the creation of a "continuum of care."

"People look to Santa Cruz as the city that drives things and makes statements," he says. "We know we can solve this, make a big dent, and solve what's ours and what's bigger than us. We just need to take the step to the next level."

* Last name withheld by request


Kim Eabry, The Homeless Garden Project,
101 Washington St., P.O. Box 617, Santa Cruz, CA 96061; 831.426.3609

Suzanne Stone, Above the Line,
2716 Freedom Blvd., Corralitos, CA 95076; 831.724.7642

Paul Brindel, Community Action Board of Santa Cruz, Inc.
501 Soquel Ave., Suite E, Santa Cruz, CA 95062; 831.457.1741

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From the February 19-26, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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