The announcement that Santa Cruz’s 180/2020 program has housed nearly 600 people feels like a moment worth celebrating, and an event honoring the program’s fifth anniversary did just that at the Colligan Theater last week. Guests snacked on celery sticks with hummus and chicken-and-onion kabobs, lemon bars and brownies. The program, which aims to end chronic homelessness by 2020, has been steadily obtaining Section 8 vouchers and securing housing for struggling locals. It may sound like the hard work is over—that with the model in place, a gentle shove will see the effort through.
Not exactly, explained Sibley Simon, a founder of 180/2020.
“This is a lot like rolling a boulder up a mountain. It takes a lot of energy to keep it where it is, and you have to keep going,” said Simon, as he introduced the UCSF School of Medicine’s Joshua Bamberger at the Thursday, Aug. 3 celebration. “And to extend the metaphor a little further, it gets harder the higher you get up the mountain.”
Bamberger, the evening’s keynote speaker, made a name for himself through his work in San Francisco’s Housing and Urban Health Division, where he’s pushed to house chronically homeless people—even if it means spending health care dollars to do so—because it will save on health costs in the long run. The term “chronically homeless” refers to anyone who has a disabling condition and has either been homeless for more than a year or had four periods of homelessness in the last three years. Following an inspirational video that focused on the people helped by 180/2020, Bamberger gave examples of things Santa Cruz can do to house more people, as well as communities from Minnesota to Los Angeles it might try to emulate.
But in order to house each client, nonprofit leaders must work closely and stay in close contact with them, which can be easier said than done.
Two chronically homeless people who spoke with GT say they think that case managers have been trying to contact them, but they’ve both lost their phones and can’t call anyone back. That isn’t uncommon.
“You will hear times that a client will say, ‘If I just had a phone,’” admits 180/2020 Executive Director Mailie Earnest. “Or a housing coordinator will say, “If I just had a way to contact them …’”
That’s why the program is implementing a new coordinated entry system to allow police officers and social workers from all over the county to easily update information about each client in one shared database. Homeless Services Center (HSC) Director Phil Kramer says the new system, launching in the fall, will help managers better track and stay in contact with those in need.
Still, community organizer Steve Pleich worries that the whole program will ultimately demand a better support system in order to truly help homeless individuals transition into their new lives.
“Unless they can get better case management systems, I don’t think it’ll be successful,” says Pleich, a longtime advocate with deep contacts in the homeless community.
Earnest says that 180/2020 does need to add more supportive services and grow its network of healthcare providers, something her team is working on.
She says she would love to add a third case manager as well, but notes that she wouldn’t be able to afford it on their current budget, which gets its funding from the city and county of Santa Cruz. 180/2020 clients also work with other groups like HSC, which employs housing navigators, who are in charge of building relationships with landlords and finding someone their new home.
One possible metric to track 180/2020’s effectiveness would be the rate at which former homeless are staying housed—something that the program isn’t yet following, although Earnest says they’ll begin doing that soon. One study done elsewhere in the country found that 84 percent of those housed in housing-first models were still housed two years later.
No matter what the findings show, there are plenty of reminders of those who haven’t gotten help yet.
Even though 180/2020 has housed about 600 chronically homeless individuals, there are still 600 more, according to the 2017 Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey. Many would love a change.
Dustin*, who sleeps on the sidewalk downtown, says he’s heard about the 180/2020 program from downtown outreach workers and the park rangers who patrol Pacific Avenue, as well as from his friends on the streets.
“I’m familiar with it. I’ve been approached about it, but I haven’t followed through with it,” says Dustin, his torso hunched forward like a candy cane.
He says managers may have been trying to contact him, but he hasn’t been able to connect with them because his phone was stolen. Dustin says that even his wife and daughter—who live in Monterey County and from whom he was temporarily estranged—have had a hard time reaching him. And he couldn’t call his wife because he had lost her phone number, he says, as he suffers from short-term memory loss.
As we talk outside the METRO’s Pacific Station, Dustin tries to chew on a piece of sweet and sour chicken through his missing teeth, and wash it down with a soft drink. Each time he swallows, his eyes bulge out with pain. He says he’s had a tortilla chip lodged in his throat for a month. Dustin spins around and starts coughing into the garden area behind him. It’s hard to tell, at least at first, whether he’s attempting to clear his throat, or going through withdrawal. Dustin’s addicted to painkillers, he says, stemming from his struggle with scoliosis. He tries doing exercises to work on his back, but they usually aren’t enough.
When a security guard comes over and tells us to move, Dustin obliges, leaving behind an orange mushy puddle in the dirt, and we walk a few feet to the sidewalk. The guard tells us to move again, threateningly, and insists we are still on METRO property. (I later find out that this isn’t the case.)
Across the street, Dustin explains that he doesn’t want to go through the 180/2020 program because he’d rather move home with his family instead. But first, he’s trying to get clean, because he doesn’t want his daughter to know that her father has become a drug addict.
Dustin hopes to check into the detox program at Janus of Santa Cruz.
That facility, I later learn from Leigh Guerrero, Janus’ chief financial officer, has a total of eight beds and a long waiting list.
Until he finds a safe home, Dustin says he will keep working on his life, and his back.
“Just when I think I have done enough back exercises that I can manage,” he says, “I sleep wrong, and I wake up in pain.”
* Name has been changed to protect source’s identity