Unsung Santa Cruz: How he became a go-to resource for Santa Cruz’s unhoused population at Vets Hall
Hector Borjas had “zero experience” with the homeless population when he began as a supervisor at the Santa Cruz Veterans Hall in August 2020. Yet over the course of a year at the emergency shelter, the 30-year-old UCSC graduate found commonalities with the residents from his own childhood, and was able to connect with residents for guidance and assistance.
When Hector Borjas applied for a job in Santa Cruz County in 2020, he wasn’t sure what to expect. He was soon approached with the option to work in a homeless shelter, which wasn’t entirely what he had in mind in the midst of a pandemic — but the experience ultimately changed his career trajectory.
“I had my ideas of what homelessness is, and it was all shattered when I started working with the individuals there,” the 30-year-old UC Santa Cruz graduate said this month, as he prepares to research master’s-level social work programs for this coming application cycle.
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In August 2020, Borjas joined the emergency COVID-19 shelter at the Santa Cruz County Veterans Hall as a supervisor, working his way up to assistant manager until the site’s closure this past summer.
The San Fernando Valley native had dealt with traumas similar to those the residents of the Vets Hall had faced — including family addiction, gang violence and poverty — which led him to find a certain level of connection with the people he served.
“It was pretty natural to see people getting hurt, to see people dying left and right where I grew up, and that kind of shapes the mind,” he said. “Your environment dictates your options in life, and whatever your surroundings and the resources — where I grew up, that wasn’t really available, I didn’t really see people thriving. You do what you gotta do to survive.”
Over time, Borjas worked on learning and healing from his experiences into his adulthood, and focused on experiencing his full emotions to process them in healthy ways. Through this personal work, he has done a lot of healing, and he was able to bring that understanding to the Vets Hall in connecting with residents much older than himself.
“A lot of people had a lot of trauma that wasn’t dealt with,” he said. “You’re going to express things in a different way, depending on your environment and the people you surround yourself with.”
If you grow up in an unsavory environment, he said, “the likelihood of good options is extremely zero.”
Right person for the job
Although he had done a great deal of work on himself, Borjas entered the role with “zero experience working in that type of system,” but soon thereafter left his preconceptions behind him. He said he had “learned so much from [his] past” that he knew he would be able to guide people in the right direction.
He further noted that, in showcasing that different way of living and existing to residents, he could help break the mold residents lived in, like it had been broken for himself.
There’s a lot of stigmas about homelessness — the dehumanization you learn over time, and you associate that with a lot of negative. But when you’re in there, you just see the human in them. You see their beauties ... a lot of us learned that, oh, ‘these are just people.’”
“There’s a lot of stigmas about homelessness — the dehumanization you learn over time, and you associate that with a lot of negative,” he said. “But when you’re in there, you just see the human in them. You see their beauties ... a lot of us learned that, oh, ‘these are just people.’”
As that mindset grew, so too did the opportunity to connect with the Vets Hall residents. Borjas said that soon after he began in his role, many of the residents opened up to him and asked him for help with certain needs, such as signing up for CalFresh or getting a Social Security card.
“I just wanted to talk to them, because you’re in the same space for eight hours, and you start to see why and how they got [to the Vets Hall],” he said. “I feel like I learn so much from everyone there, just from a human standpoint.”
Further, Borjas discovered that many of the residents were native to Santa Cruz, something that helped him to both change his perspective and connect more with the residents from personal experience.
“There’s so much trauma, and it’s all unresolved, and you see it from their behaviors,” he said. “I grew up in poverty and a very violent place, and the things you see at the shelter are pretty gnarly ... I see why they’re doing it, and you start to see the whole picture.”
Borjas used that understanding to focus on the goal of helping the residents and giving them tools to get out of homelessness. He recalled one man who had not received the pandemic stimulus check, and they worked together to find that the man owed $75,000 in child support. Borjas searched for ways the man could pay off that amount, and ultimately the pair found a program where he was qualified to get the amount eliminated.
Seeing him and all his pain flash from his eyes ... a lot of people were super trusting of me.
“Seeing him and all his pain flash from his eyes ... a lot of people were super trusting of me,” Borjas said.
Looking out for others
Another time, Borjas had to do chest compressions on a resident who had experienced a stroke as they awaited an ambulance. While performing the life-saving procedure on the resident, he also wanted to preserve his two 19-year-old coworkers, who were scared of the situation.
Whittaker Miller was one of those coworkers, and he said he greatly appreciated everything Borjas demonstrated through his leadership skills during their time at the Vets Hall.
“He was a great presence to be around — his energy maintained throughout the time there,” they said. “He was a figure you could rely on, and was always there to ask if you were OK, needed to take a walk or go home. He was the best boss you could ask for.”
Sylvia Carass volunteered weekly at the shelter for about nine months and — although she noted a 56-year age difference with Borjas — she said she was enthused by their conversations, connecting during breaks in their shifts.
He didn’t trivialize anything that was going on — he was serious, careful and caring, and he’s smart and thoughtful.
— Sylvia Carass
“He didn’t trivialize anything that was going on — he was serious, careful and caring, and he’s smart and thoughtful,” she said.
The pair talked about Borjas’ career plans, and incorporating his caring into his supervisor role. Carass noted that Borjas often wanted to “help, fix or resolve” whatever the residents were going through, which also played into their off-duty camaraderie.
During their time at the Vets Hall, Miller and Borjas would debrief with burritos on Mondays after work, and continued to hang out at the beach or soccer games after the Vets Hall closed. That connection inspired the 19-year-old to continue in this line of work.
He was someone we knew we could trust, because his main goal was to be honest, truthful and reliable, and help everyone as much as he can. I see a lot of qualities in him that are things we need in the world ... he always finds the time to talk about how you’re doing.
— Whittaker Miller
“He was someone we knew we could trust, because his main goal was to be honest, truthful and reliable, and help everyone as much as he can,” Miller said. “I see a lot of qualities in him that are things we need in the world ... he always finds the time to talk about how you’re doing.”
After being with the Vets Hall through its closure this summer, Borjas is now looking toward a career pivot. He’s begun researching master’s in social work programs to assess how he could continue along this trajectory, helping others as a therapist or in a similar capacity to his work with the Vets Hall residents.
Of course, he believes that the work he was able to complete while at the Vets Hall has planted the seed for many of the residents locally.
“I knew our time was limited here, so I wanted to make the biggest impact and make the connections,” he said. “Once the environment’s right, those seeds will grow and they’ll be ready for the change.”