By Drew Penner
Gabriel Barhell, 56, is a former Air Force medic from Tennessee who served in the first Gulf War.
He came to Santa Cruz with his girlfriend, a traveling nurse. And when they broke up, he ended up living in the forest.
“There was a glitch in the system, to where I had no place to go,” he said. “I was homeless in San Lorenzo Park and being attacked.”
During the pandemic, in the wake of 2020’s CZU Lightning Complex fires, a variety of programs were rolled out across the county to try to find people without a home a place to live.
Barhell says he ended up staying, at one point, at Motel Santa Cruz, and then, at another point, at the Hitching Post Studios Inn. But he says he and other previously-unhoused people would get kicked out when they needed to rent the rooms to make extra money.
Eventually, he was invited to live at Jaye’s Timberlane Resort, along with several other veterans, which he said did him a world of good.
“You’ve got the nature, the trees, the community,” he said. “It’s just a safer environment.
“There’s nobody to attack you. There’s nobody to take advantage of you.”
It’s this model that a group of local nonprofits has been seeking to replicate—permanently—on the property.
And last week, they got a chance to lay out their plans for the community during a pair of meetings at Highlands Park Senior Center.
In front of about 20 people on Dec. 10, Chris Cottingham, Santa Cruz County Veterans Memorial Building executive director, said they’d purchased the rustic property in November, with escrow expected to close in January.
Their vision is to set up permanent supportive housing on a small scale in the hopes of replicating it throughout the county, in the future.
He said, as the landlord, they’ll have a tough drug and alcohol policy and make sure residents respect the property boundaries.
In response to fire safety concerns raised at the first community meeting, Cottingham revealed updated plans including a designated smoking area and a dead-vegetation clean-up initiative.
While there are currently two designated RV parking spaces on the property, the group plans to use these to site modular housing, or something similar.
And, Cottingham stressed—
“There will be no tents,” he said. “We’re trying to bring people inside.”
The group plans to submit an application with California’s Department of Housing and Community Development in the coming weeks, and hopes to receive funding through its Homekey affordable housing program.
If all goes well, Phase I of the Veterans Village could open as soon as March 2022, with a small-scale expansion rolled out by November.
David Pedley, who spent 13 years in the Marine Corps, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was once homeless. Now he’s behind the scenes working to get this housing project off the ground.
During the meeting, he described how he’d been drifting around and arrived in Santa Cruz on the word of another Marine.
“I came here with $900 in my pocket,” he said. “I don’t know why.”
He was living in a Winnebago and ended up visiting the Veterans Memorial Building at 846 Front St. in Santa Cruz. The first free meal he ever ate there sticks in his mind.
“They served fish,” he said. “And I hate fish. But I ate it anyways—because you’re homeless.”
Through the veterans’ hall, he started to make connections with local service providers.
He ended up in the 14-bed Paget Center, emergency housing that helps veterans access resources as they transition to a more permanent situation.
He is thankful to have been offered a job at the Veterans Memorial Building, and to have secured a home in the St. George Apartments, with the help of a Section 8 voucher.
“I couldn’t have done it without that support,” he said. “It really worked for me.”
Pedley says it’s hard to describe how much purpose this facilitated in his life.
“I didn’t just come back from homelessness,” he said. “Now, I have a wife, and I have a kid. And I have a home.”
Cottingham said there are way too many unhoused veterans, and they will make sure to select the best-behaved ones to invite to live in Ben Lomond.
There are already four veterans on-site—including Barhell—through a different pandemic-era program.
Barhell came to the meeting because he says permanent supportive housing is exactly what the veterans’ community needs.
“You see, there was a gap,” he said. “And this is filling that gap.”
One meeting attendee raised concerns about the state of the current septic system on the property, how it’s zoned and a waterway that passes through and connects to the aquifer.
Cottingham said the group will involve the community at every step of the process and is confident they’ll win the support of Supervisor Bruce McPherson, who is himself a veteran.
“This is not a ‘transitional’ program,” he said. “Ultimately it’s the idea of building a community of like-minded individuals.”
The Phase II development they envision includes things like turning a three-car garage into residences or filling in the pool to create more surface area to build on while reducing operations costs—not bulldozing what’s there to put in a slew of high-density rentals.
The group says it’s already raised 85% of its $4.5 million goal.
Keith Collins, director of operations for the Veterans’ Village, says this will be similar to projects in Santa Ana, Glendale, Santa Clara—but with a unique San Lorenzo Valley flavor.
And he says having case managers on site will allow issues to be dealt with before they metastasize into a serious problem.
“I hope we are welcome in the community,” he said, adding, “—and the veterans as well.”
Jack Tracey, president of the Veterans Memorial Building board, said the group considered other options, including an acreage and a Watsonville motel, before settling on Jaye’s Timberlane.
“It’s just an incredibly peaceful place to be,” he said of the mid-century cabins. “It’s still in pretty doggone good shape.”
The Free Guide Executive Director Evan Morrison said, as a resident of Boulder Creek, he views this project through the lens of a San Lorenzo Valley resident. He says he’s invested in making sure it fits into the community.
During the Q&A, one man commented that the “elephant in the room” is the real estate brokers who’ve already begun making references to “homeless” people in stoking fears about the project online.
Cottingham has heard this before, and he has a few things to say about this tactic.
“The folks that are going to be moving in there are going to no longer be homeless,” he pointed out, adding the price they’re paying for the land is likely to raise property values, not trash them. “We are planning on putting a considerable amount of money into the property.”
Plus, the half-a-million dollars they’ve raised in the last month alone suggests there’s plenty of community support for what they’re doing, he added.
“As a community, this is our opportunity to show everyone else how it is done,” he said, adding the on-site assistance will be tailored to the PTSD and isolation issues veterans often face. “The community, the support, the brotherhood—that’s what people need.”
James Walter, 68, who neighbors the site, says he’s barely noticed the veterans who live there now.
“It’s quiet,” he said. “They are going to vet these people—no pun intended—extremely well.”