.Hands Out

wellnessProject Homeless Connect offers services that fill a need beyond hunger

Earlier this month, I gave hand massages to the homeless. It was at the county’s fifth Project Homeless Connect event—and the first one to be held in Watsonville. Volunteering with the College of Botanical Healing Arts (COBHA), we were just one booth of around 40, and, at first, we weren’t very popular. People flocked to the DMV, the medical, dental, vision, employment, legal, and immigration service booths. They got their hair cut. And they ate.

“I saw the spaghetti and meatballs and that’s where I went first,” says Danny, 43, a recently divorced musician who spent the summer living outside, not far from Sir Froggy’s Pub in Soquel, after being kicked out of the garage he had been living in. He had recently found a cheap room to rent in Watsonville, and was looking for a job. “I have food benefits, but you can’t get hot food with those,” he says, wiping sauce from his face.

As the day wore on, our booth began to fill up. Couples down on their luck, young teens beaming after a new hair cut, and my favorite, a 32-year-old woman named Alma who confessed that she has been so stressed out looking for a job that her thick black hair has started falling out. We provided a hot water soak, a clean washcloth our visitors could keep, and a few drops of the essential oils that best fit their needs—for Alma, that was lavender for relaxation, and rosemary for the hair—mixed into a fragrance-free lotion. Then, sitting across the table from our subjects, we treated them to the best mini-massage we could, and talked to them about what was going on in their lives. By the time Alma left she was a little more relaxed, laughing, and inspired to seek out the Homeless Garden Project booth to inquire about a job.

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Like the hot bar at Whole Foods, human touch, eye contact and conversation are all things that the non-homeless population takes largely for granted. But they are all fundamental to mental health, if not physical as well.

“When I was out there, people would, if I was standing at a stop light, lock their car doors. They would cross the street when they’d see me coming,” says Marcus Kelly-Cobos, 43, who was homeless on and off for 27 years, up until three years ago. “It was just totally demoralizing. And then I came here, and there were people who were talking to me eye to eye, and it just made a difference, because I knew that ‘OK, there are people out there that do really care.’”

When he attended the first Project Homeless Connect event at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium in 2012, he just came for the free stuff, he says. At the time, he was living under a bridge by Depot Park, drinking and doping every single day. “I was 150 pounds, 6 foot 2, highly undernourished. I was considered chronically mentally ill, and in and out of jail almost on a weekly basis,” he says. On a whim, Kelly-Cobos visited the substance abuse treatment booth of Janus of Santa Cruz. “My life’s gone from being in and out of jail in handcuffs, to actually advocating for addicts and alcoholics, and that’s what I want my life to revolve around.” Aside from volunteering at PHC, Kelly-Cobos is pursuing a double major in Criminal Justice and Human Studies at Cabrillo College, where he’s also a student senator.

At any given time, there are between 3,500-3,600 homeless persons in Santa Cruz County, according to Peter Connery, who heads up homeless research at Applied Survey Research, where he is vice president. “And of that, there’s probably close to 3,000 that are unsheltered at any given time.” But that number represents only the most literal of homeless. “It does not include people that are living in hotels or motels, tool sheds and barns, and you know, double, triple or quadrupled up in residential situations like we see especially here in South County,” he says.

For Connery, homelessness is an emergency situation. “This is Hurricane Katrina on a social level,” he says. “There’s a huge continuing need for emergency services, and, in effect, disaster services, because that’s what this level of homelessness is in our community, it’s a disaster. But there are still a lot of paradigms out there that homeless represents weakness and personal failure instead of economic causality, and mental and physical health issues.”

It’s also a health crisis. The foundation of health and wellness is stable and safe housing, says Connery. To start, an estimated two thirds of the homeless population is severely depressed. “And any existing physical problems get worse, mental health problems and substance abuse problems get worse,” he says.

In a perfect world, Connery says, there won’t be any need for an event like Project Homeless Connect because there will be a virtual one every day, as clients are able to call one number and find out where they need to go for their services. But for now, the donation-based event is the only concentration of organized outreach of its kind.

Before I attended Watsonville’s first Project Homeless Connect event, which saw about 300 clients and about 150 volunteers, I was warned. “Whoa, be careful. Don’t get sick, or stabbed,” said one friend. “Make sure you wash your hands after!” said another. But connecting with other human beings on a soul level is nothing to be afraid of.

“I believe we are not our behaviors, and we are not our life circumstances,” says Kelli Roth, a reiki master and COBHA board member who spent time time working with the homeless population in New York City. “When you hold their hands and you’re doing this work, you’re seeing through their life circumstances, through their behavior, whatever they’ve done, and through to the perfection of their souls. We are all perfect deep down.” PHOTO:  Volunteer Erika Fremlin gives a haircut at Watsonville’s Project Homeless Connect event. CURTIS MOTHERSHED


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