Carol and Rebel, two homeless people living in Santa Cruz. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
Monica Martinez, executive director of the Homeless Services Center, is not using her time efficiently. She’s committing an entire morning to Walter (not his real name), a very skinny homeless man with a bushy beard, leathery skin and a mumbly way of talking. She is taking him to the local Department of Veterans’ Affairs office to get him signed up for benefits, hopefully including a housing voucher.
“He’s entitled to veterans’ benefits but he’s not receiving a dollar from them. He’s never even gotten registered, because nobody’s walked him through the process. You know what?” Martinez lowers her voice, “I’m the executive director of this organization. The last thing I should be doing is taking a homeless guy to the VA. This is not a best practice.” And then she does something very odd for a person speaking about chronic, debilitating homelessness—she smiles. She smiles because she believes she knows how to end homelessness, once and for all. She smiles because, in the long run, she believes what she’s doing with Walter is very much a best practice.
Martinez cares deeply about homeless people, yes, but it becomes clear from talking to her that what she loves most is solving problems.
Martinez’s background is in something called Permanent Supportive Housing, which she describes breathlessly as “the ultimate solution.” It is a model for solving the problem of homelessness, and it is the backbone of a national grassroots effort called the 100,000 Homes Campaign. With this model, homeless individuals are put into housing—literally, “Here’s an apartment, here’s a key,” no questions asked—and wrapped in any and all supportive services they may need for the rest of their lives until they die, hopefully with dignity and indoors.
The national campaign aims to find permanent housing for 100,000 chronically homeless Americans—meaning people who have suffered long-term or repeated homelessness coupled with a disability—by July 2014. So far, the campaign has housed over 17,000 people. It has outposts in 130 communities, including Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and San Jose. This May, Santa Cruz joined the campaign and committed to house 180 homeless individuals in our community.