U.S. Marine David Pedley had a backpack full of clothes and $900 to his name when he moved to Santa Cruz. He initially lived with a Marine Corps pal in a weathered Winnebago. After a month, the tight living space felt like it was getting smaller by the day.
“It was a pretty warm winter that year, so I just stayed on the beaches and figured out how to feed myself at the mobile pantries around in Santa Cruz,” Pedley says.
However, he grew tired of the nomadic lifestyle. He yearned for the routine and consistency in his life that he had grown accustomed to during his 13 years of active military service. That’s when Pedley discovered the Veterans Memorial Building (Vets Hall) in downtown Santa Cruz.
“[The military] doesn’t tell you about these services or what’s available,” he says. “I went in and ate some food and I was good to go. I said, ‘Who are all these people in the auditorium?’ It turned out that it was Veteran Services Day, so every veteran support provider was there—all the [services] you need as a veteran, like helping you get out of homelessness.”
That warm, mid-December day marked the beginning of Pedley’s journey. His value and work ethic were apparent: He used his 20-plus years of experience as a chef to develop the American Legion’s meal program.
“I threw myself into [the work],” Pedley says. “At that point, I was like, ‘This is all I want to do for the rest of my life.’”
Pedley swiftly moved up the ranks into a leadership role, and is now Veterans Hall Building Manager. He has his own home now and family. Most importantly, Pedley is doing something he believes in wholeheartedly.
It was stories like Pedley’s—and others from the many homeless vets who stayed at the Vets Hall throughout the pandemic during the 16 months it was used as a shelter for people experiencing homelessness—that initially inspired the Vets Hall project Santa Cruz County Veterans Village.
“We got up close and personal with a lot of folks who were experiencing homelessness—about 10% were veterans,” Vets Hall Executive Director Chris Cottingham says. “During that time, we started asking ourselves, ‘What’s next? Where do we go from here?’”
Asking those questions led to the brutal reality: Permanent supportive housing for veterans is nonexistent in Santa Cruz County.
Vets Hall Director of Programming Keith Collins had already been looking into establishing a Veterans Village in Santa Cruz County, which was precisely in line with the type of solution Cottingham had been searching for.
A Veterans Village Committee was formed; after six months of searching, they stumbled upon a six-acre property in Ben Lomond called Jaye’s Timberlane. The former resort boasts a main house—with four bedrooms, three bathrooms and an office—along with 10 additional cabins with kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms.
“When we saw [the property], it screamed what we all had envisioned for a Veterans Village here in the county,” Cottingham says. “It’s something special to have independent units to where each veteran can have their own home and their own space; to be able to have it on a piece of property that’s just so beautiful, with the giant redwoods and lush landscape.”
The property is also less than a quarter-mile from a bus line, and about a 10-minute drive from the Vets Hall. For the past eight months, Timberlane had even provided emergency housing for veterans in the community during the pandemic.
“It’s so serendipitous how this all came together,” Cottingham notes. “Since vets have already been staying here, it allowed us to talk to them and ask about their experience staying on the property. Their feedback pushed us to buy this place—it’s turnkey and furnished. It just makes it so much easier to house people.”
With the support of Community Foundation Santa Cruz County and other community leaders, the Vets Hall was able to put in an offer on the property and plans to ultimately support itself using funding from HUD-VASH (subsidy vouchers for veterans dealing with chronic homelessness) for operations and continuing to build real estate equity for future expansion. The offer was accepted, and the group is now in escrow.
“We’re expected to close on Jan. 12,” Cottingham says excitedly.
Veterans Village isn’t a new concept—similar programs exist all over the country—but the veteran-owned and operated program will mark the first in Santa Cruz County. The Ben Lomond property will eventually provide housing for up to 40 veterans in need of permanent affordable housing and onsite supportive services. There will be enough room to house 18 veterans right out of the gate.
“The difference between shelter and this place is this is permanent supportive housing,” says Vets Hall Board of Trustees President Jack Tracey, who’s been providing services to veterans and working in human services with the homeless since 1971. “If people want to move in here and stay for the rest of their life, they’re able to do that. We’re hoping people will come here, feel comfortable, find a sense of community and grow.”
Collins says they’ll be implementing supportive programs, including onsite case management, mental and physical therapy, drug and alcohol counseling, resident services and visiting medical staff. After working more than 20 years in affordable housing and running veteran programs in Santa Clara County, he knows what kind of services are most important.
“This is a collaborative effort between private individuals and companies, nonprofits and county government,” Collins explains.
The initial goal was to raise $4.5 million, which would cover the acquisition of the property and help with initial annual operating costs, which are estimated to run between $300-500,000. Over the last six months, every veteran’s organization in Santa Cruz County has contributed human resources and financial support. Vets Village is also working with the county to apply to Project Home Key for additional funds. Also, a slew of folks is already offering to volunteer.
“We’re about 80% of the way there to that $4.5 (million) goal,” Cottingham says. “I think between now and opening, our goal is to raise an additional $700-800,000.”
Since the facilities are pretty much ready to go, residents could start moving in as early as February or March of 2022. There isn’t a shortage of demand. At least 179 veterans in Santa Cruz County fit the bill, and referrals have been coming in from operations like Front St. Inc.
“It’s a small step in the right direction,” Cottingham says. “We’d love to see the capacity grow, but will have to see where the next steps take us.”
It’s the partnerships—private, nonprofit and public—that have come together that make the Santa Cruz County iteration of Vets Village unique.
“Three entities coming together and working for the greater good,” Cottingham says. “I’d like to say that’s a new vision for how we deal with affordable housing moving forward—egos have been thrown to the side. Ultimately, that’s how this has come together in such a short amount of time.”
The mission is also noteworthy: A veterans community owned by vets, run by vets and operated by vets.
Collins credits many organizations and individuals, including VMB Board Supervisor Manu Koenig, who have backed the project since its infancy. The list of people who have and continue to contribute in some way continues to grow exponentially by the day. But that’s what it takes to pull off such a massive enterprise: a village.
While Veterans Village is close to opening, it still needs to fund about 25 percent of the project’s costs, and is asking Santa Cruz Gives donors for help. Here is a rundown of other homeless-oriented nonprofits also seeking donor assistance in Santa Cruz Gives.
Families in Transition – “Set Up for Success”
For nearly 30 years, FIT has provided temporary rental assistance and case management to homeless Santa Cruz County families and those at risk of becoming homeless. While the long-term goal to end and prevent homelessness in the county is ambitious, in the short term, the project is focusing on providing essential expenses that government funding leaves out, including bedding, pajamas, cleaning supplies and nutritious food.
With “Set Up for Success,” donors choose how much they donate and know how it benefits a family in need. $100 provides groceries and cleaning supplies for a family of four; $250 provides groceries, cleaning supplies and clothing for a family of four, and so on.
Homeless Garden Project – “Essential Workforce Development”
In 2021, HGP donated tens of thousands of pounds of fresh, organic produce, which is just a byproduct of their mission and allows them to help even more people in need. Support is necessary for the program to continue to provide training and employment to those experiencing homelessness. HGP also needs funding to operate Santa Cruz County’s first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, which helps build bridges between the housed and unhoused.
Housing Matters – “The Home Sweet Home Project”
For 35 years, Housing Matters (formerly Homeless Services Center) has been dedicated to creating pathways for families and individuals out of homelessness and into permanent housing. Shelter is just the first step. Once a family has a roof over their heads, there are many needs. Donations help fund “Home Sweet Home” baskets full of essentials, including cleaning supplies, linens, grocery gift cards and a unique housewarming gift.
Pajaro Valley Shelter Services – “Hope and Home: Moving Families Out of Homelessness and Into Permanent Housing and Self-Sufficiency”
PVSS’ new tenant education program “Hope and Home” provides training and support that increases the ability of families to find and keep suitable housing. Areas of focus: avoiding poor landlord/neighbor relationships, emergency funds, building credit and housing laws.
Warming Center/Footbridge Services Center – “Warm Nights for Everyone”
In their eighth year providing pop-up shelters for the Santa Cruz County homeless, Footbridge has learned that many would rather stay in their tents even on the chilliest nights. Hypothermia is more common than you may think for those who isolate on these cold nights. Donations ensure the Warming Center is well-stocked with thousands of blankets, hand warmers, gloves, beanies, warm clothing and several hundred rain tarps.
Wings Homeless Advocacy – “Rehousing Wave: Welcome Home”
Santa Cruz County provided safe shelter and critical services to more than 800 homeless residents during the pandemic. As the funding for such services dries up, most of these folks will be forced back to life on the streets. Wings and the Homeless Action Partnership are providing basic needs to those transitioning into permanent housing. Donations provide beds, hygiene and cleaning supplies and vital document services to families and individuals.
To contribute to these organizations or any of the other 80 participating nonprofits in Santa Cruz Gives, visit santacruzgives.org. Follow Santa Cruz Gives on Facebook @santacruzgives, Instagram #santacruzgives and Twitter @scruzgives.