Cameron Smyth: Homelessness in the time of COVID-19

Cameron Smyth

The coronavirus pandemic has affected all of our lives in unprecedented ways. For those in the Santa Clarita Valley who are experiencing homelessness, it has added fear and additional obstacles in what is already a daunting journey back to permanent housing. 

Since the very beginning of the pandemic, the homeless population was identified as high-risk for contracting COVID-19 due to the lack of access to proper nutrition, shelter and sanitation facilities. I am proud of the way our city and community have stepped up to ensure the safety of this vulnerable population. Our community’s primary homeless service provider, Bridge to Home, did not have adequate room to accommodate the necessary social distancing for their clients. The city offered the Newhall Community Center as a temporary shelter site to assist with this need. Currently, 60 people have a safe place to sleep and a clean place to get meals. 

Through Project Roomkey, additional individuals, who are experiencing homelessness and have been identified as high-risk due to age or pre-existing conditions, are staying in a local hotel, where they can properly socially distance. Our local homeless services providers have gone above and beyond to keep clients and the community safe during this pandemic.

Throughout the last half a year of health restrictions, the Community Task Force on Homelessness continues to meet virtually and continues to make progress on action items with the Community Plan to Address Homelessness. One of the critical action items is a homeless registry, which will allow service providers to better understand the needs of the homeless population. The registry will track those experiencing homelessness and what resources they require, in an effort to better align current and future services to meet those needs.

This registry will be another tool to get a clearer picture of homelessness in Santa Clarita. Another tool is the Annual Homeless Count. The results from the 2020 count were released at the end of last month. This point-in-time count showed a decrease in the number of homeless individuals in the valley. The results are far lower than what our key stakeholders are reporting, due to the actual definition of what constitutes homelessness.

We know our local school districts have seen an increase in the number of homeless students, and local service providers, including Bridge to Home and another local nonprofit, Family Promise SCV, have also served an increase in clients over the past year. These statistics also do not take into account the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on those on the brink of homelessness. Across the country, businesses big and small are being forced to close their doors permanently, which means more and more people are unemployed and many are wondering how they are going to pay their mortgage or rent.

Even with a small improvement in the unemployment rate in June, the numbers from April through July are still the worst in Santa Clarita history, even more so than during the Great Recession. These statistics show that the work the Community Task Force on Homelessness is doing now is more critical than ever. The 30 key stakeholders who comprise the group have already achieved several major accomplishments. The Bridge to Home shelter is now open year-round, providing shelter and meals 24/7. Progress continues to be made on an enhanced, permanent shelter facility at the Drayton Street site, on land donated by the city. Meanwhile, $300,000 of Measure H money will go toward a property acquisition for interim family housing for Family Promise.

As the months of restrictions from the county and state continue to drag on to slow the spread of the coronavirus, I am proud of the way our community has worked together and supported one another. We must continue to look out for those less fortunate during these uncertain times, so as a community, we can remain safe, strong and resilient.

Cameron Smyth is the mayor of Santa Clarita.

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