Phil Kramer stood in front of some 20 tables and a rainbow of pastel tablecloths, dotted with flowers from the Homeless Garden Project, at Simpkins Family Swim Center earlier this month. It was a party for Project 180/180, the collaborative program designed to house 180 people in the county most in need of shelter—the chronically homeless, the sick and the mentally ill. The project hit a milestone this fall when it reached a halfway point with 90 people housed.

But within the party was a quieter celebration, as activists, politicians and bureaucrats chattered about a new study into Project 180/180, and a partnership with UCSC.

“We were excited to hear the university is going ahead and building a research project,” project manager Kramer told Santa Cruz Weekly after the meeting.

Heather Bullock, chair of UCSC’s psychology department, is collaborating with Lois MacGillivray, a Catholic nun, to study how Project 180/180 works—and how well. “We really want to dig deeper,” Bullock says, gripping both hands around her tea cup. The women are sitting next to an ocean view of 21st Avenue Beach in the dining commons of the retreat center where MacGillivray lives—a common study place for the two researchers. “We want to understand what combination of services along with housing really helps support people.”

Bullock and MacGillivray’s research will weigh the costs of this approach to homeless issues that Kramer and Homeless Services director Monica Martinez projected would save the county money—by spending a little more on housing and treatment, but at the same time much less on expensive emergency services.

Martinez and Claudia Brown, president of the HSC board, are also enthusiastic about the research, which they believe will validate the program. But it will also be a test. No doubt the critics who questioned the effectiveness of the program when it launched in the summer will look to the study to see how many benchmarks have been met.

MacGillivray, who studied sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says she wants to create an honest evaluation that other communities like Santa Cruz will be able to use in the future. “We’re doing interviews of all stakeholders,” she says. “We’re not just looking for cheerleaders.”

Financial cost-benefit analyses aside, the study will look at how effectively organizers are reducing homelessness and what, exactly, it’s been like for people who spent years on the streets—some of them, decades—to adjust to permanent housing. Bullock and MacGillivray will interview people that project organizers have moved into housing and their case managers. They’ll be analyzing data, including that from the Homeless Information Management Systems, to see what services the county’s transients have been using and look for any trend changes. They will also compare costs to the community before and after people receive housing.

MacGillivray doesn’t want to assume public costs will go way down immediately under Project 180. She predicts, if nothing else, they won’t go up. This comes from research communities, like Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Denver and New York City, which have done similar studies, so there’s already some literature available—the most notable being “Million-Dollar Murray,” a story by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker that famously depicted how Reno, Nev. saved itself money and a man’s life by giving him a place to live and alcohol treatment.

Not many places the size of Santa Cruz have launched programs with such ambitious goals and followed up with evaluations. Bullock and MacGillivray hope to come forward next year with a model of best practices for how to get the chronically homeless off the streets that will serve not only Santa Cruz, but other small towns looking to remedy the same problems.

“Obviously we’re going to have more to say in the coming months,” Bullock says. “The research is crucially important. We can’t have informed programs and initiatives without information about how well they’re working.”

  • Nanette Saucier

    One thing that would really help is to have Project Homeless Connect happen more than once a year. How can we raise funding for that to happen?

  • Nanette Saucier

    One thing that would really help is to have Project Homeless Connect happen more than once a year. How can we raise funding for that to happen?