A tiny-home village for homeless veterans? It’s part of non-profit’s bigger picture — but the clock ticks
The Santa Cruz County Veterans Memorial Building Board of Trustees is on an ambitious quest: Create housing for all Santa Cruz County homeless veterans — and do so before the clock runs out on pandemic-related funding that’s helped shelter vets amid COVID. Part of the solution? Tiny homes.
A non-profit that provides numerous services for Santa Cruz County veterans is in the early stages of tackling a huge challenge: Creating permanent shelter for dozens of military service members left homeless amid the pandemic.
And leaders of the Santa Cruz County Veterans Memorial Building Board of Trustees say the clock is ticking.
Some 65 to 70 veterans are currently being housed in COVID-19 emergency shelters operated by Santa Cruz County government. But that effort — made possible in part through a state program that houses homeless vets and others in local hotel rooms — is expected to shut down when pandemic-related federal funding for it dries up.
“Once that (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funding runs out around September, we are trying to make sure that (veterans) have a place to go, a more permanent solution,” said Chris Cottingham, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Veterans Memorial Building Board of Trustees.
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The organization is well-aware of homelessnesses’ impact not only on veterans, but on the community as a whole. It oversees the county-owned Veterans Memorial Building, a veterans’ resource center that also houses veterans’ services offices for county government while serving as a cultural center and events venue.
But when COVID-19 swept across the country last March, trustees quickly pivoted to convert the building into an emergency homeless shelter, not just for veterans, but for anyone experiencing homelessness. That shelter, which can accommodate as many as 45 beds, remains open for now.
“We’re aware that the problem’s greater,” Cottingham said. So as the non-profit works on their model for homeless veterans, their hope is that it can eventually be used to address homelessness on a larger scale.
“We believe that if we focus our efforts and band together, we can at least focus on our veterans as being a portion of that population and not just again provide another temporary solution,” Cottingham said.
Three-phase vision includes ‘tiny homes’
In general, Cottingham and his group envision a phased approach. “We’re trying to champion a project that would basically allow us to do a development on a piece of property that would address the immediate issue,” he said. “And then move on to a second phase of a ‘tiny home veterans village,’ and then the third phase being a fully developed veterans village that would include a community center, on-site supportive services and et cetera.”
Among the options being considered for a tiny home village are 400-square-foot units with two bedrooms, a living room, shower and bathroom. “Basically full units,” Cottingham said.
From there, the plan would be to transition into more permanent housing on the same site, raising money to build it while occupants live in the tiny home village. And then, “once that final development is built on the property, those 40 tiny homes could go to another location and duplicate the model,” Cottingham said.
Because time is of the essence, and even the tiny home phase might take nine months to a year to develop, Cottingham said there might also be a need for a temporary shelter site to buy some more time. The non-profit is also considering making any slots that become available at the Veterans Memorial Building available to veterans instead of the general population.
The amount of money needed to bankroll the first two phases of the effort is roughly between $7.5 million and $7.8 million, Cottingham said. That would include the purchase of a site and buying about 30 to 40 tiny homes.
So where would the money come from?
Part of it, Cottingham said, would be generated by federal housing vouchers — known in government parlance as HUD-VASH vouchers — for veterans. The federal program combines U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher rental assistance for homeless veterans with case management and clinical services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The idea is that the continuous funds the housing assistance generates would eventually help pay off what it cost to purchase the site, to buy the tiny homes and put them up, and to operate the program.
That money would set the stage for the larger, more permanent development, which Cottingham envisions being funded through a public/private-non-profit partnership. “I would see private donors in our community contributing,” he said. “I would see potentially some public funds and grants maybe from some other veteran organizations to go toward the program operation. And then I would see a private developer that would be part of the partnership as well.” The group is also looking at federal and state grants for veterans and veteran housing.
For now, the Santa Cruz County Veterans Memorial Building Board of Trustees has formed a committee to bring all of the county’s veterans organizations and other community partners together to join forces and try move the project forward.
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Clock is ticking
The county’s emergency shelter operations are expected to continue through at least Sept. 30 with costs covered by FEMA reimbursement.
So the biggest hurdle for the undertaking ultimately is timing. “Any project of this magnitude typically will take quite a bit of time to put together a plan, and so really it’s working against the clock,” Cottingham said.
Another obstacle: Finding the right piece of property for the project to work. That not only means locating a site that is big enough, but also one that is close to medical services and public transit, among other things.
“We want this to be something that’s within a community that they can participate in,” Cottingham said.
Despite the challenges still ahead, Cottingham sees the current moment in time as an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive for the local veteran community. With many of the people they need to reach already in emergency shelters, it makes it easier for Cottingham and others to find them and communicate with them.
“That’s often the hardest part, right, because ... if somebody’s living off in the hills or the mountains, and you have to go in to find them to connect with them it becomes a lot more difficult to find out their needs,” Cottingham said.
The more permanent housing envisioned as part of the effort aims to incorporate all types of veterans, he said. That includes veteran students who are looking to attend Cabrillo College or UC Santa Cruz, veteran families and those transitioning from service coming back. “The third phase we’d be opening to a wider demographic of veterans” who are struggling to find affordable housing options, he said.
Finding a site
A commercially zoned property off Freedom Boulevard in Watsonville has been identified as a potential site for the project.
The site already has some existing businesses on it that could help in generating additional revenue via lease or rent payments, with some of the spaces currently being rented out and some empty and available, Cottingham said. There could also be an opportunity to use some of the unoccupied commercial space for a community center.
Though it’s “very premature” at the moment, Cottingham said, what the group envisions is developing the backlot on the property for the tiny homes and then redeveloping the commercial part of it, which could mean a multi-level project with residential units atop commercial space.
“There’s a lot of opportunity,” he said.
Charles “Stoney” Brook, a member of the county’s human services commission who has been working on the effort, presented the proposed undertaking to fellow commission members last month.
Part of the long-term vision includes helping veterans transition back into society, especially with waves of service members expected to return from wars abroad.
“We’re looking at, our best guess is, probably another 40 years of impact on our social services, just from the veterans alone who will be leaving the Iraqi-Afghanistan War era,” Brook, who served in the Marine Corps, told the commission. “So we need to be prepared for that. That’s why we’re trying to build the village now. So that we’ve got 60 or 70 housing units in place, as folks are transitioning so that we get them surrounded and held up with that care.”
For David Pedley, a former homeless veteran who now works at the Veterans Memorial Building, the non-profit’s project is “of the utmost importance” and a way to thank veterans for their sacrifices — not just by providing them a home, but by surrounding them with counselors and some of the same programs that helped Pedley out of homelessness.
“It’s just another part of that road of hope that we want to be” on, he said. “That should be the standard. You know, and it doesn’t have to end there with just vets. ... Why can’t this be the standard for everybody?”