Homeless vets were said to be a local success story. So why does the latest data indicate otherwise?

A scene from Watsonville during February's point-in-time count.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

While support for homeless veterans has been robust at both the state and national levels, a recent survey done in conjunction with February’s one-day point-in-time count suggests that the situation in Santa Cruz County might not be as positive as local advocates believed. Was it an anomaly or is there a bigger problem to be addressed?

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As Lookout spent weeks talking to dozens of homelessness experts and advocates earlier this year to get a handle on the state of Santa Cruz County’s unhoused population, two contingents were consistently held up as success stories: families with children, and veterans.

Yet when preliminary results of the biennial point-in-time count survey were released last week, only the first group met those expectations, with family homelessness dipping by 59%.

The trend line on veterans, however, proved sobering, with a 120% increase from 2019 (151 rose to 332). The number of veterans as a percentage of the entire homeless population (14%) has never been higher in the seven previous county PIT counts dating back to 2009.

The results have confronted those same experts and advocates with key questions, such as whether they miscalculated those successes and if a one-day survey might not have captured the full picture.

“We too are trying to understand the reasons why the number of veterans increased significantly between 2019 and 2022,” Robert Ratner, the director of Housing For Health, told Lookout.

A possible one-word answer that would account for that time frame: COVID. Researchers conducted the 2019 count before the pandemic threw a wrench into all public health outreach and began an unprecedented escalation in the local affordable housing market.

Clearly, that affordability spike has exacerbated the problem. A rapid rise in rental prices, combined with veterans’ limited fixed incomes, has turned formerly tenable situations into untenable ones.

“Veterans that received help to move back into housing with temporary housing subsidies (might) not be able to keep up with the increasing costs of housing in Santa Cruz and are losing housing they secured,” Ratner said, offering one theory.

Chris Cottingham, who serves as one of the main touch points for local veterans as the executive director of the Santa Cruz County Veterans Memorial Building, echoes Ratner’s thinking.

“Many of our veterans are of the Vietnam era, and they are now getting into the age that limits their ability to generate additional income,” he said. “With a limited income and a housing subsidy, it is getting increasingly difficult to find housing in the Santa Cruz area. We have been fielding a lot of calls from veterans who are getting priced out of their current living situation.”

A group walks through Lighthouse Field during February's count.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cottingham was at the center of the biggest victory for homeless veterans recently when Vets Village in Ben Lomond, formerly Jaye’s Timberlane Resort, was christened to house 25 veterans with on-site supportive services. The project came together in late 2021 and then received a $6.4 million boost from the state’s Project Homekey grant program in May.

Tom Stagg, who leads veterans outreach for Housing Matters, said his organization is still evaluating the disparity in what the PIT survey found on a single day and what he and his colleagues see daily. As a cursory observation, he said the methodology could be at issue.

“The PIT count is one tool that contributes to our knowledge of the homeless situation in our county,” he said. “Along with the other veterans services providers in Santa Cruz County, we also keep a by-name list updated on a biweekly basis that identifies by name the unsheltered, sheltered, and housed veterans that each program is engaging. And we ask every one of our campus guests and program participants if they’ve served in the military.”

And Stagg says the disparity between what Housing Matters has tracked and what the PIT survey found is undeniable.

“It doesn’t align with what we are seeing in our Supportive Services for Veteran Families program or our other services and outreach including the mailroom, bathrooms and showers on campus,” he said.

(Questions sent to John Connery, who leads the PIT count for Watsonville-based Applied Survey Research, have not yet been replied to. Lookout will add those when received.)

A shelter under the Main Street bridge over the Pajaro River in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Ratner provided three other factors his office is examining as it evaluates veterans’ current situation:

  • Most Veterans Administration resources and programs are available only to those with a discharge status of honorable or higher; veterans with dishonorable discharge status often don’t qualify for available programs.
  • Data seems to indicate a bump in the number of veterans with health issues, including behavioral health issues, indicating a need to shore up access to high-quality care.
  • Most veterans in the PIT count were unsheltered and contacted via survey workers. There is a lack of consistently funded general street outreach in the community that could contribute to veterans not getting linked to available resources.

Both Cottingham and Keith Collins, the director of operations for Vets Village, said the CZU fire might have displaced some veterans who haven’t been able to get back into housing.

As the analysis continues, those working in the field point to work that’s already begun.

The county’s recently approved second Homekey project, Park Haven in Soquel, has a commitment to house veterans. And Cottingham said there are efforts afoot to fund several more Vets Village projects in the county.

“I believe we can house all of our veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness — and then we need to stop making homeless veterans,” he said. “Supportive services, affordable housing and training for better employment are critical to stopping that flow.”