Post-pandemic, new Housing Matters shelters could offer growth capacity

Ten 64-square-foot Pallet shelters were delivered and assembled at Housing Matters on Tuesday. (Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

By JESSICA A. YORK | jyork@santacruzsentinel.com | Santa Cruz SentinelPUBLISHED: April 14, 2020 at 4:00 p.m. | UPDATED: April 14, 2020 at 5:39 p.m.

SANTA CRUZ — Galvanized by the coronavirus emergency, Housing Matters was set to offer space in 10 new single-person homeless “cottages” this week.

The individualized 64-square-foot aluminum shelters, a pilot effort for the organization, were purchased from, delivered, built and outfitted Tuesday by Everett, Washington-based Pallet for about $8,000 apiece, said Housing Matters Executive Director Phil Kramer.

“COVID-19 really accelerated all of our plans,” Kramer said of ongoing efforts to increase homeless shelter space throughout Santa Cruz County. “We recognized that we weren’t going to be able to achieve social distance in — a bunk bed is basically two feet away from the upper and lower bunk.”

A worker from the crew at Pallet installs one of 10 new shelters at Housing Matters on Tuesday. (Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

In the long-term, once shelter-in-place and social distancing rules are relaxed, Housing Matters will be left with the capacity to expand its shelter offerings — if it is able to increase operational funding and staffing to support the increase, Kramer said.  TOP ARTICLES1/5READ MOREUCSC transit driver is Santa Cruz County’s secondCOVID-19 death

The Housing Matters effort comes online even as Disability Rights California, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, and the ACLU of Northern California have written joint letters in the past week to Santa Cruz County and Santa Cruz city lawmakers, urging the immediate safe accommodations — including emergency commandeering of area hotel and motel rooms — for the area’s homeless population.

Shelters lined up in the parking lot at the 115 Coral St. property, once complete, will immediately be put to use in spacing out residents of the emergency 40-bed Paul Lee Loft shelter, which had been too crowded under COVID-19 health directives. About two weeks ago, some of the Loft’s inhabitants had been relocated to cots inside 20 stand-up tents, Kramer said. Separately, an existing five-bedroom house part of the Page Smith Community House shelter has been set aside for coronavirus isolation and quarantine purposes as needed, he said.

Outfitted with solar-powered outlets for charging devices, locking doors, a bed, shelving, windows and heating units, the Housing Matters shelters are little more than single-person bedrooms, though the organization purchased several spare cots to add in extra beds for couples, as needed. Each shelter has a capacity of as many as four people at a time, according to Pallet’s website.

Kramer said a bonus benefit to the introduction of the private tent spaces, likely a similar outcome with the Pallet shelters, has been Housing Matter’s ability to bring in off the streets people who have avoided utilizing the dorm-style Paul Lee Loft.

“For some people, the shelter environment and the dormitory setting is more of a hindrance than it is a help to them; I know that can be counterintuitive. For many people, having this space, their own independent living space, their own tent, it really respects their dignity and their privacy,” Kramer said. “So, we’ve had people that we’ve been working with for a while show a lot of interest, who otherwise weren’t engaged or interested in coming into the Loft.”

The project was assisted by a special allowance by the City of Santa Cruz to the daytime relocation of some 50-60 parking spaces used by employees of Housing Matters, Encompass Community Services and the Homeless Persons Health Project to the Tannery Arts Center parking lot on nearby River Street, Kramer said. Funding for the shelters came out of Housing Matters’ new COVID-19 Response Fund, which aims to raise $250,000. Kramer said he anticipates some of Housing Matters’ shelter spending may be reimbursed through emergency local, state or federal coronavirus funds.

An April 9 letter signed by Disability Rights California, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, and the ACLU of Northern California representatives suggests that, during the coronavirus emergency, the city and county pledge to leave intact existing homeless encampments not posing immediately public health or safety risks, provide motel and hotel rooms without diagnosis limitations and suspension of parking regulation enforcement, towing and impoundments unrelated to traffic safety.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct an error related to the number of tents provided for social-distancing reasons at Housing Matters.