A glimpse at what life is like after being housed by the 180/180 campaign
When Peter Cook wakes up in his new bed, with a roof over his head, he says it takes him a moment to realize where he is. And then, for another moment, he questions whether he’s even supposed to be there.
Sitting at his kitchen table, Cook surveys his living quarters with wide-eyed amazement. The space is mostly unfurnished—in the living room there is a dresser, an unplugged television on the floor and a Yamaha keyboard, one of the few possession he brought with him.
But the modest abode is a huge improvement over his prior situation. Cook was homeless in Santa Cruz County for three years, living out his car for the first two and then, after losing the car, braving the outdoors.
On July 26, the 51-year-old combat veteran moved into a small mobile home on Portola Drive, becoming one of the first in a group of about 10 homeless people to obtain housing with the help of the 180/180 campaign.
The campaign, a local initiative to permanently house 180 of the most vulnerable homeless people in Santa Cruz County by July 2014, contacted Cook during their registration week in May and, based on a survey, identified him as one of the most vulnerable, at-risk-of-death individuals living on the streets, says Phil Kramer, the project director for the campaign.
Cook’s housing was paid for with a Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) voucher, while most of the others—non-veterans—were housed with the help of Section 8 housing vouchers.
Part of the 180/180 campaign’s role is to help its homeless clients access these vouchers and other benefits that will help them afford housing, Kramer says. While the campaign does not pay for the housing itself, it does purchase “move-in kits” for participants that include household items like pots and pans, silverware and a dresser. The campaign raised $24,000 in May to cover the cost of these kits.
Although the long-term results of the 180/180 program are yet to be seen, the impacts on the lives of the few who have already been housed are manifesting in positive ways. For his part, Cook says that moving into the home has completely turned his life around.
Most notably, he says his health has improved dramatically. The biggest changes, he says, have been being warm at night, having access to clean water and getting to cook for himself. After three years of not being able to prepare proper meals, Cook says he has especially enjoyed making hot potatoes with cooked vegetables and butter. He has also taken pleasure in being able to plug in his radio, and no longer having to worry about stocking it with batteries.
He takes pride in his clean, uncluttered home. In his bedroom, there is a single bed, a fishing pole leaning in one corner and several paperback novels scattered on the floor. Since moving in, Cook has relished the opportunity to read—another small luxury he couldn’t partake in while homeless because he didn’t have reading glasses.
“Sometimes I can’t believe it,” Cook says. “I wake up and I think, ‘What is going on?’ Because it’s been so long [since I’ve had a home].”
But the transition from homeless to housed hasn’t been as easy as one might think, he says. Despite having a bed of his own, on several occasions he has felt more comfortable sleeping on the floor.
Prior to July 26, Cook spent most of his nights sleeping near the Summit in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where he managed to avoid authorities by covering his tracks—throwing away his trash, not having fires and brushing over his trails.
“I’m good at hiding,” he says. “They taught me that in
Cook was a paratrooper in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and served in Grenada and throughout Central America in a series of “police action” conflicts during the 1980s. He has a sad, distant look on his face when he thinks about the violence and prefers not to talk about it.
He says that explosions during his military service caused his hearing to deteriorate, leading to his current habit of watching people’s mouths when they speak to better understand what they are saying.
“I was partially deaf and partially blind, and living lost,” he says of his homeless years. “Now that’s scary.”
Mike Kittredge, the daytime essential services program manager for the Homeless Services Center, which is in partnership with and funds the 180/180 campaign, says he got to know Cook at the Veterans Center on Emeline Avenue during registry week. Kittredge noticed then that Cook’s health was declining rapidly.
Cook says he suffered several bouts of bronchitis in the months before he moved into the home on Portola Drive, all while living with pain from a number of injuries, including a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left leg and a torn meniscus in his right from accidents long ago. He also faces lingering effects from being hit by a forklift while working in construction in 2009, when he broke both his wrists, herniated discs in his neck and damaged internal organs.
While Cook’s health has improved since he moved into his house, he was rushed to the hospital last month for what turned out to be a heart condition that causes seizures.
Although Cook has had access to healthcare through the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.), he says that being homeless made traveling to see a doctor incredibly difficult. He adds that he is struggling to access his V.A. pension benefits, and that Veterans Advocate Dean Kaufman at the Veterans Center on Emeline Avenue is helping him with that.
Kramer, who says the recent move-ins are a great start to the program, explains that 180/180’s role at the housing stage is to track the selected 180 homeless and also move up their priority level for housing vouchers.
In Cook’s case, the campaign shared his information with the V.A. and made sure he accessed his benefits. A caseworker from the V.A. checks in with him regularly, as do both Kramer and Kittredge, according to Cook.
Kramer says he hopes that 180/180 can change more than just the lives of homeless people in Santa Cruz County. The campaign aims to create a system where most of the service providers, agencies and organizations in the county work together to help the homeless. “It’s about making sure people who need help aren’t falling through the cracks,” Kramer says.
One example of that effort is the Housing Work Group, a meeting for service providers throughout the county that assembles weekly to share information and review the 180/180 campaign’s list of “high-priority” homeless clients.
Among those attending Housing Work Group meetings are representatives from SC4, Front Street Housing and the Homeless Persons Health Project, says Kramer.
“This is a group of people that has never sat around a table in this setting before,” he says. “And what’s happening is we’re able to coordinate way better.”
Back in his living room, Cook’s demeanor is that of a man who can appreciate life again. He explains that it’s common for homeless veterans to not seek out the help they need, and that they often need a boost—like the one he’s gotten—from someone else.
Not too long ago, Cook feared that he was going down the same path as his close friend John, another homeless veteran who he says died of exposure to the cold in February.
One of the first things Cook says he noticed after spending the night in his new bed was that he didn’t wake up shivering from the cold. He still wakes up with first light, but in the shelter of his new home, the morning dew doesn’t suck the warmth from his body.
Not having to worry about wild animals is another welcome change. Cook says that packs of coyotes were a big problem while sleeping on the Summit, and that they even attacked a friend of his once.
He looks out his window, a cup of coffee in his hands, and notes that there have been zero coyote incidents in his new home.
Photo credit: Keana Parker