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How These Five Groups Are Working to End Homelessness in Santa Cruz

Five Santa Cruz Gives nonprofits making a difference for people who are homeless

Pajaro Valley Shelter Services transitions families into permanent housing.

Shower access, the need for laundry services, and a demand for storage. These were some of the unmet needs in homeless services noticed by members of the Warming Center, a local organization that helps provide a place inside to sleep for anyone in need on colder nights. Program Director Brent Adams says they are what led to the formation of the Footbridge Services Center.  

It all started with the Warming Center, which had a policy of never turning away anyone who was in need, he says. Adams took that mission and translated it into his storage program. 

“People drop off their day bag at night so they don’t have to carry around all of their daytime possessions when they pick up their bedding, and then in the morning they drop off their bedding and pick up their day bag,” he says.

On top of that, Adams says many homeless people end up viewing their clothes as disposable because they can’t access or afford a way to wash them. Weekly laundry hauls prevent clothes from getting too dirty or worn down, and cut down on the need to receive new clothing items from a donation bin—which the center also provides, along with hygiene products, weekly showers, and access to phone chargers. He says the Warming Center and Footbridge Services Center are all about solving problems in innovative ways.

“We just want to get that first level taken care of: You are clean, you have your own clothes, your family photos are safe,” he says. “Desperate people behave very desperately, so what we want to remove is all of those areas where desperation can occur.”

The Warming Center is one of five organizations working to end homelessness in Santa Cruz County that are part of Good Times’ Santa Cruz Gives program for this year’s holiday fundraiser. Each nonprofit has a specific project it is raising money for, and the Warming Center is seeking funding for the Footbridge Services Center.

GARDEN GROW

Thirty years ago, the Homeless Garden Project was founded with a focus on well-being for people experiencing homelessness. The organization has shifted toward providing transitional employment through their organic urban farm.

“We found that what folks really needed was a job; they needed income while they were growing food,” says Homeless Garden Project Development Director Paul Goldberg.

The nonprofit has always had a focus on well-being, but over the years they have honed it down, helping graduates focus on finding housing and jobs.

People experiencing homelessness can participate in their year-long transitional employment program while receiving support in areas they may need. The organization has two storefronts, one located in downtown Santa Cruz and another on the Capitola Esplanade, which provide many of the work opportunities and raise money.

“The stores not only help us raise income to support our program, but they give real-world job skills and training opportunities, both in the product creation, marketing, and then selling it in our retail establishment,” says Goldberg.

The organization’s latest project is an Alumni Circle, where peer or organizational support is provided to graduates who might be in need of some extra help.

WINGING IT

Wings Homeless Advocacy was founded 10 years ago to help keep people housed and provide basic essential items for people moving into a new home.

The organization helps people experiencing homelessness obtain vital documents, and now it has unveiled a new mobile van to help with services.

“We’re always figuring out what the next needs are, and this year, mobile is a need,” says Alexis Geers, Wings’ development director.

Volunteers and volunteer notaries with the organization help people obtain vital documents and fill out forms for government assistance, housing and jobs every week at the Santa Cruz Public Library, practicing social distancing. 

Attaining these documents is often a crucial first step on a person’s path to getting back into housing, explains Geers.

Volunteers also give bedding, furniture, and welcome baskets to people as they move into their new homes.

Currently, due to the pandemic, transportation has been limited. The organization is working toward obtaining a van to bring their services around the county. Although some volunteers have been using their own vehicles, having a van would help make the process more efficient and allow for more visits to Watsonville and other established shelters in the community.

SHELTER STATESMEN

More than 40 families have purchased homes after receiving services from the Pajaro Valley Shelter Services. Mike Johnson, the organization’s executive director, spent 20 years working in homeless services and had never heard of a person leaving a homeless shelter and purchasing their own home.

“That particular statistic is the reason I’m here,” he says. “When I heard that, I decided I wanted to be a part of this organization.”

The organization serves about 205 children and their parents each year. Last year, 87% of children and adults in the program transitioned into permanent housing.

This year, the organization has decided to focus on self-sufficiency, providing families in the program with financial education and employment resources since there has been a large impact on them from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“When the lockdown first happened, 57% of our families lost employment immediately,” says Johnson.

Although many clients have gone back to work, most are working less hours or earning a lower salary, Jonhnson says.

Johnson says the organization plans to increase staff and invest in economic activities for their clients to help them transition into jobs that would be less vulnerable to a pandemic. He says Pajaro Valley Shelter helps people access professional development and financial literacy training through banking partners.

“We’re teaching them budgeting and savings skills,” he says. “We’re doing everything we can to help them overcome these barriers that have been presented by the pandemic.”

MATTERS OF HOUSING 

During the devastating CZU Lightning Complex fire this summer, many Santa Cruz community members stepped up to help friends, family, and sometimes complete strangers figure out how to get housing.

Leaders of Housing Matters, a local nonprofit working on the issue of homelessness, noticed parallels between what the community members were doing and their own work. After connecting with some of these community members, the organization developed a webinar to help community volunteers more easily navigate helping people displaced by the fires.

“We provided some really basic case management training to people who were acting essentially as case managers,” says Cassie Blom, assistant communications director for Housing Matters.

Following the webinars, Housing Matters leaders decided to create the Pathways Home Toolkit, an accessible collection of materials to assist people who are helping someone find housing. The toolkit will contain information, training, and interactive worksheets to help both the person looking for housing and the person assisting them.

“Seeing the community response to the fires, and seeing the community step up and help people who lost their homes in the fires was really the inspiration for the toolkit,” says Blom. 

For information on how to donate to any of these homeless-related groups or any of the 40 participating nonprofits, visit santacruzgives.org.

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