Quick Take:

Phil Kramer, executive director of Housing Matters, wants to take the compassion and love Santa Cruz County used to get through 2020 and keep it flowing to help the homeless next year. A $2.5 million grant from an organization overseen by Jeff Bezos is sure to help.

Now in his fifth year at Housing Matters, executive director Phil Kramer knows a thing or two about multitasking. As he walks around the homeless service provider’s two-acre campus on a sunny morning in early December, his steps are quick, his eyes darting and the walkie-talkie on his hip chirps every few minutes with updates from around the Coral Street facility.

He stops to greet a resident, to help someone access their P.O. box and to pick up some small pieces of litter on the ground. Other people are buzzing around, too. Deliverymen wheel packages around, handymen work on a pillar just outside the Homeless Persons Health Project clinic.

It’s about a week before he can share the news that caused Housing Matters staff to dance and cry tears of joy: the nonprofit will get a $2.5 million grant that they plan to use to end family homelessness in Santa Cruz County.

Lookout’s 21 for ’21

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re profiling 21 individuals who made a difference in pandemic-and-wildfire-ravaged Santa Cruz County in 2020 — and how they’re looking toward recovery in 2021. Have suggestions about others we should pick? Email us at news@lookoutlocal.com

The grant — delivered in $500,000 increments over the next five years — comes from the Day 1 Families Fund, started by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2018 to help organizations that feed and house families throughout the country. Housing Matters was chosen from a highly competitive pool of applicants and is one of 42 U.S. nonprofits to get a piece of the $105.9 million pie.

“This grant will allow us to expand our services in ways we could have only dreamed of!” Kramer broadcast out to Housing Matters’ supporters in an email.

Kramer and his team intend to use the money for two main purposes: to study the current network of homeless services in the county and identify where the gaps are, and to expand Housing Matters’ capacity to quickly help more families.

Part of that second piece is adding another case manager and adding a new position, a Family Outreach Specialist, to find families who need help but haven’t yet connected with Housing Matters.

“With this grant, we want to set the goal of ending family homelessness in five years,” said Cassie Blom, a spokesperson for Housing Matters. “They call up, they say, ‘Hey, I need help,’ and they get help that day. The idea is that their experience of homelessness is very brief, they get housed very quickly and then they don’t get unhoused again.”

The funding will also broaden the pool of families Housing Matters can assist. Previously, some families were ineligible for services or programs because they didn’t meet certain requirements.

As of Dec. 18, there were 28 families in the Coral Street family shelter, but at least 75 known Santa Cruz County families are homeless or lacking adequate housing. Families often have to wait weeks or even months for space to open up in shelters, or for services to become available. This grant money can help change that.

That means no more waiting for families who find themselves in the crisis of homelessness. — Phil Kramer

“This grant will help us make enough progress on the current wait list to provide immediate access to shelter and services in the future. That means no more waiting for families who find themselves in the crisis of homelessness,” Kramer said.

The hometown organization has come a long way since Kramer was tripping over duct-taped carpet in the main building. It’s now an operation with a more than $5 million yearly operating budget, 60 employees and hundreds of people who count on it everyday for a variety of services.

Housing Matters is the county’s largest homelessness nonprofit, and provides half of the county’s 400 or so shelter beds, plus 15 programs, the majority of which have funding gaps that need to be filled by donors every year.

In 2020, as Santa Cruz County endured the pandemic, the protests, the fires and more, Kramer saw a change of heart underway outside the gates of the Coral Street compound. He watched as housing insecurity found a new light — one that showed homelessness not as a moral failure, but as a devastation, a crisis that demands a community come together to help those who are struggling.

And that’s what Santa Cruz did.

Throughout the year, people showed up for one another, willing to give in truly meaningful ways, Kramer said. It made him think: What would it look like if Santa Cruz extended that same depth of compassion to the rest of its 2,000 to 3,000 homeless neighbors?

What if in 2021, Santa Cruz saw all people experiencing homelessness as deserving of help — of neighborly empathy?

“It seems that the community certainly has the compassion and the caring and, dare I say, love,” Kramer said. “If COVID and the fires have taught us anything, it’s that we need each other.”

Follow Isabella Cueto on: Twitter. Isabella joins the Lookout team as a government accountability reporter, building on her experience covering local government for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.Before...