For 10 years, 72-year-old Ernest Keller was homeless. A few of those years, he was able to crash at people’s homes, but for most of them, he was living in his own “cardboard castle,” as he puts it.
Eventually, 180/2020, the local nonprofit fighting to end chronic homelessness, got him a case manager and a home inside of St. Stephens Senior Housing, where he’s been living the past six months. When he moved in, he had nothing. He was sleeping on an old outdoor patio lounge chair that a friend gave him—still an improvement from the “rock and pebbles and cardboard” that he says he was used to sleeping on.
Shortly after being housed, Keller received a call from Wings Homeless Advocacy. Volunteers brought him a brand new bed, among other things, including a welcome basket, with basic home supplies like a toothbrush, toilet paper and a plunger. They asked Keller what else he needed, and he told them: a dresser, a dining room table and some chairs, all of which they took care of getting for him.
“I felt like, ‘Gee, I’m starting to feel like I have a home,’” Keller says. “I feel like I won the lotto. I feel like I got a brand-new life, even though I’m 72.”
Wings, an organization participating in this holiday season’s Santa Cruz Gives fundraising drive, supports the needs of the newly housed. It takes a lot of work to get Santa Cruz County’s homeless into permanent housing. But that isn’t the end of what can be a major transition. Without assistance, many of these folks can wind up right back on the streets.
“Say you’ve been on the street for 10 years, you get a new house. What do you do now? You don’t have any furniture. You don’t have any toothpaste, or a toothbrush, soap or shower curtain. Those basic things. Those add to your stress,” says Wings executive director Jil Castagnola. “Sometimes the stresses of everyday life get to them. We’re hoping to reduce their amount of stress to make sure they have a forever home.”
Wings is one of eight nonprofits in Santa Cruz Gives this year fighting homelessness—a list that also includes Community Action Board, Downtown Streets Team, Homeless Garden Project, Homeless Services Center, Pajaro Valley Shelter Services, Warming Center Program and Rising International.
Through Santa Cruz Gives, Wings is focusing on fundraising for its “big idea”—Beds and Baskets, the program that specializes in the basic needs of those just getting off of the streets and moving into a home.
“It seems inhumane to give someone the key and say, ‘they’re housed,’ and just move on. We are of the opinion that people deserve a bed to sleep on and the welcome basket has things like dishes, toilet paper, toothpaste, shampoo, things that we take for granted. They have none,” Wings co-founder and board president Peggy Benedum says. “Each person’s situation is very complex. They usually have multiple things that have to all line up to be successful all at once for them to be able to get in to housing and stay there.”
There are various aspects to Wings’ mission, including its commitment to offer rides wherever the people need to go. That can be to the doctor, grocery shopping or even just downtown to get some coffee. After living on the streets and being part of that community, it can be challenging to adapt to life in a home. Wings not only provides physical items, but also emotional support, mentorship and encouragement to let folks know that they are on the right path and there are ways to meet their needs.
The idea for Wings came to Benedum and Jim Young after participating in Project Homeless Connect Santa Cruz, an event where homeless individuals have access to various resources. Benedum and Young volunteered as advocates and mediators for those looking for help navigating the services. At the end of the day, they felt like they could do so much more.
“Truth is most of the people on the street are way more versed on the resources available to them than we were,” Benedum says. “We helped them get an ID card, we helped them get some food and clothes, but we didn’t help them get out of homelessness.”
Wings operates directly with case managers at organizations that find homes for people living on the street. The case managers, who are typically overwhelmed, contact Wings, looking for assistance. Currently, Wings is able to assist approximately a total of 50-55 case managers from three separate organizations. As Wings grows through fundraising, Benedum and Castagnola hope to work with case managers in places on the outer edges of Santa Cruz County like Watsonville.
Wings has what it calls a “no guilt” volunteer program, meaning that if someone signs up to help, they’ll be on a list to be contacted to help give rides, deliver beds or offer whatever service is needed. If the volunteers are unable to help on any given day, no explanation is required on their part. The more people on their list, the better they can serve the people they are trying to help.
“If we can increase our volunteers we’d be able to serve more individuals and support those individuals more,” Castagnola says, “and hopefully be one of the major forces of reducing the amount of homelessness we see in our community.”
For more information on Santa Cruz Gives, or to donate, please visit santacruzgives.org through Saturday, Dec. 31.