Veterans Village in Ben Lomond offers cabins, scenic views and services to six homeless veterans and could be a model for how to handle homelessness in our community and nation. The only problem? Money. It has millions, but needs more. In this Lookout video, Keith Collins, a veteran homeless advocate and the director of operations and programming at Veterans Village, and two veterans who live there explain why Veterans Village matters, needs to grow and deserves support.
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Keith Collins thinks he has a formula for alleviating homelessness for veterans in Santa Cruz County.
That’s no small sentiment, given that this year’s point-in-time count showed a stunning 120% increase in homeless veterans since 2019. It’s the highest percentage of homeless veterans we’ve had since the count began in 2009.
In real numbers, that’s a jump from 151 people to 332.
Collins’ vision is quite simple: give veterans fresh air, cabins, redwoods and a lot of on-site services.
He’s found the perfect spot: the former Jaye’s Timberlane Resort off Highway 9 in Ben Lomond, now called Veterans Village. It’s a mini-paradise, dotted with rustic cabins tucked amid the redwoods in the San Lorenzo Valley and equipped with offices and places for on-site support services and job training. Collins is the director of programming and operations and has been working on the project for almost two years.
He currently houses six veterans and their families, but hopes eventually to expand to 20 families.
There’s only one problem: money.
In the spring, the Santa Cruz County Veterans Memorial Building Board of Trustees, which Collins works for as a consultant, received $6.4 million through the state’s Homekey project. It was one of two homelessness proposals in the county awarded state funding, and it came with great celebration. That’s a recognition of success.
Collins has also raised, received and borrowed about $4 million in other funding, including $500,000 through Community Foundation Santa Cruz County, $495,000 through community fundraising and $2.9 million in loans.
But he still needs more. At least another $2 million.
That’s a lot of money to need.
It’s also a lot of money to service 20 families, especially when there are so many more homeless in our community.
But Collins insists starting a project — in this case, building 10 new cabins and refurbishing the 10 cabins that are there — is always costly, and says the model will make a continual difference in the lives of veterans and establish a precedent in this community.
“Finding the right affordable housing and providing the necessary supportive services is key to the success of any program like ours,” he says. “Although it may appear costly on the surface, it pales in comparison to that of having these individuals unhoused and in the streets. More than that, morally it is the right thing to do. Especially for those who have sacrificed and paid in some cases the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and way of life.”
Collins is a veteran homeless advocate, so he knows what he is talking about. He’s spent over 20 years in affordable housing work, and before coming to Santa Cruz in December 2020, he spent five years in Santa Clara County advocating for veterans and other groups in need, including working as a senior policy analyst for the Santa Clara County Housing Authority.
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In this 5-minute video, we take you to Veterans Village and let you judge for yourself what Collins offers. You can listen to Collins explain his vision — and hear the voices of two veterans currently living on site.
One, David Crowe, a former Marine, says the village is “proof Santa Cruz County cares,” and that he “prayed” to end up in a place like this.
Another, Gabriel Barthel, who was a medic in the Air Force, spent a month in the Benchlands homeless encampment along the San Lorenzo River before getting a spot in the Veterans Village. The City of Santa Cruz is now trying to close the Benchlands, but it is not clear where the 350-plus people who live there will go.
In the video, Barthel sits with his dog, Pumpkin — whom he “gave up” while he was homeless because “I didn’t think I deserved her” — and talks about how grateful he is to be off the streets.
He breaks down in tears, unable to continue, as he thinks about his life and the journey that led him to Veterans Village.
We encourage you to watch.