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1448 NEWS1Project 180 ups ambitious goals to house homeless

After many years of struggling through bouts of homelessness, Cindy Peck felt like she’d won the lottery when volunteers with the 180/180 initiative helped her find and move into an apartment in June. For more than a year before that she had been living out of her car.

“I was in dream-state disbelief,” says Peck. “I don’t know if ‘blown away’ is the expression, but that comes to my mind. I’m just so thrilled, and it’s a big difference.”

Peck, an elderly, physically disabled woman, says that one of the greatest boons of having a place of her own is finally getting a full night’s sleep. “When I was homeless, I slept a couple of hours every night, if that,” says Peck. “You get tired. You’re sleeping on a bench. You’re sleeping with one eye open because you’re vulnerable. I go to sleep now and I don’t have a worry at all.”

Upon surpassing its goal of housing 180 chronically homeless individuals in Santa Cruz County this past July—and having housed more than 220 individuals to date—the multi-agency initiative has changed its name from 180/180 to 180/2020. Instead of establishing another quota of individuals to house, the initiative’s steering committee developed a more ambitious objective: to end chronic homelessness in Santa Cruz County by 2020.

According to the latest Homeless Census and Survey, conducted by Applied Survey Research in 2013, the total population of people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz County is more than 3,500. Out of those living outdoors, close to 1,000 are considered chronically homeless.

“It helps to be clear about ending chronic homelessness—what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that there might not be another individual who experiences chronic homelessness in Santa Cruz County as we approach the end of the decade. It means that we’re able to house more people on a monthly basis than are experiencing chronic homelessness,” says project manager Phil Kramer. “The name for this is functional zero.”

By federal definition, a chronically homeless individual is someone who has been unsheltered for a year or more, or had four periods of homelessness in a three-year period, and has a disabling condition, whether it be mental or physical.

The housing-first concept was adopted by the local 180 initiative based on the best practices of the 100,000 Homes campaign, a national project that pledged to house 100,000 chronically homeless people by July 2014. Like the 180/2020 initiative, the 100,000 Homes campaign not only met but exceeded its initial goal, ultimately housing more than 105,000 chronically homeless people nationwide. Evidence from across the country shows that this model not only changes lives, but saves communities money, too, in terms of law enforcement and hospital costs, for instance.

Cindy Peck’s story is much like one shared by 180/2020 volunteer John Dietz, who joined with the original 180/180 initiative after retiring from the aerospace industry. Before he began to volunteer for the project, Dietz assisted a family member move into a home of their own after living in a van for 15 years. It was then that he first witnessed the remarkable positive impact that having a roof over one’s head has on someone who has been living outdoors for so long.

“I could see such a dramatic change in his whole attitude toward life. I could see him becoming stabilized. I could see him being integrated into the community and wanting to help other people once I got him housed,” says Dietz. “I saw living proof that the concept of housing first worked, and saw that that was being adopted in the 180 program, so it was a natural thing for me to join in.”

The goal of putting approximately 1,000 individuals under one roof is no small undertaking, especially considering 180/2020 leaders were chosen to participate in the nationwide Zero: 2016 campaign, which is a commitment to house all chronically homeless veterans by 2016. Homeless veterans make up about 11 percent of the total homeless population in the county.

Although housing all the county’s chronically homeless, veterans and otherwise, might seem like an impossible undertaking, Kramer notes that even he had experienced doubts during the first initiative to house 180 chronically homeless individuals. But having surpassed that goal, he says reaching the new goal is quite possible.

“When we launched 180/180, we took our best estimate at a number we thought that we could reach. We weren’t sure if we could reach it, and there was no guarantee that we could,” says Kramer. “The 180 goal was audacious, and yet we’ve proven what we can do by coming together and working as a community at large.”

The efforts have had support from the County Board of Supervisors, who have pledged to the national Mayor’s Challenge campaign, which aims to house all chronically homeless veterans by December 2015. All four of the city governments are also on board with the commitment, and Santa Cruz County is the first and only county government to take on the mission.

According to the 100,000 Homes campaign the average savings to the community is $13,000 per individual each year for each person housed. Similar figures are not available locally. But according to the national figures, the 180/2020 initiative has saved the community upward of $2.6 million dollars in hospital stays and jail visits.

“Let’s just take that $2.6 million as an annual average. How do we turn that savings and cost avoidance into something that saves lives and saves money,” says Kramer. “We know that there’s a drain on the public purse, a drain on public resources for individuals who are accessing expensive general relief emergency services, and that we can save money by helping those people into permanent supportive housing. That’s one of the big things we’ll be focusing on: turning that cost avoidance into investment.”

Under their new Executive Director Jannan Thomas, the Homeless Services Center (HSC) is another major partner in the efforts. [See page 32 for more information on HSC.]

The Board of Supervisors has also coordinated with the Housing Authority to prioritize Section 8 voucher holders who are chronically homeless. Additionally, the board approved funding in its last budget to provide two case managers for the initiative.

In October, Supervisor Leopold showed further support when he decided to facilitate an outreach effort in Live Oak and Soquel, which have experienced an increase in homelessness, according to Leopold.

He and a group of approximately 40 volunteers went out into the areas known for homeless congregations and encampments with the intention of getting to know every individual experiencing homeless by name and by their personal circumstances. Among other things, Leopold says, he found that most individuals didn’t want a shelter bed, but a permanent home.

“It pulled away the numbers and the statistics, and I met the real people,” says Leopold. “I learned that no two stories are alike, and that for the needs of the individuals there wasn’t one size that was going to fit all, and that by actually asking detailed questions, we could find out what it will take to help people out.” PHOTO:  John Dietz, a volunteer for the 180/2020 project, meets with formerly homeless client Brad Schwartz in his home.  CHIP SCHEUER

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