Join our discussion of CFSCC’s solution for long-term, community-based housing for veterans - including who should be leading the conversations, the crucial role of an impact investing program, and tips for blending onsite support with offsite services.
“Veterans Village,” a first for Santa Cruz County, will provide a permanent affordable housing solution for veterans and their families, complete with on-site support services, amenities, outdoor recreation, and a supportive community of peers.
The Jaye’s Timberlane property in Ben Lomond has a four-bedroom, three-bath home plus an office with 10 additional cabins with their own kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms on nearly six acres of land. The turnkey property will be able to house 16 veterans and their families and Vets Hall will launch a phase two project to develop housing capacity for a total of 40 veterans.
Watch the video or read the full interview below (Download a PDF of the interview)
00:00 - Introductions
01:21 - Current status veteran challenges in the U.S. and locally in Santa Cruz
06:27 - Support routes for veterans
07:47 - Acquisition of the lodge
12:14 - Impact investment program with CCA
14:33 - Solving the challenge of funding: public and private
17:00 - The team that made Vets Village possible
18:55 - Daily life for vets at the village
20:10 - Financially sustaining and expanding the village for the long-term future
21:53 - How others can get involved with supporting veterans of Santa Cruz County
Community Capital Advisors Impact Story
Guest: Susan True, CEO of the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County (CFSCC)
Host: Kim Kastorff, Director of Kimpacto (and on behalf of Community Capital Advisors)
Susan, could you share a bit about your role and the purpose of the Community Foundation in Santa Cruz?
I have had the good fortune of leading the Community Foundation for the past 5 years as the CEO. We do a lot of different things at the Community Foundation. We are able to bring people, ideas and resources together to inspire philanthropy and accomplish great things. We do that in a number of ways, such as sustained efforts over time on important community issues but also responding to disasters and being a place where neighbors come to help neighbors.
Help us understand the current situation of our Veterans in the U.S. In your opinion, why do you feel that Veterans are often left behind after serving our country?
Well, I think there’s been a real change as our WWI and WWII veterans have became seniors and we have lost many as the years go on. I think that was a different time in our country when veterans came back from Korea and Vietnam, and the wars in the Middle East. We have really seen a shift in what the needs are, and in a country that hasn’t been prepared to meet all of those needs. So, what we find is that Vietnam vets, which are a significant portion of our homeless veteran community here and nationally, as well as the veterans coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have a level of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We see substance abuse and the on-going ravages of war, and also depression and suicide. We hear about it in national headlines but when this is a person that is your neighbor, you really want to do something to help.
In Santa Cruz County where your foundation is based, roughly how many Veterans are in need of support?
Our homeless veteran population has only about 200 individuals who are experiencing levels of homelessness that require support from the community. That just feels like an achievable goal.
We want to eliminate veteran homelessness in our community.
What does homelessness look like in Santa Cruz County?
Our county (Santa Cruz) has one of the highest per capita homelessness rates in the country. This is a place with hot sand on the beach, temperate weather and a pretty accommodating community vibe. We are also, most importantly, one of the most expensive places to live in the world, and specifically one of the least affordable. We have rents that are skyrocketing, home prices that are through the roof, and not a lot of housing to support people. We haven’t developed housing in California, and certainly Santa Cruz County, for many generations. So, if a person is already vulnerable because of trauma, PTSD, the experience of war, substance abuse, or mental health, then they are so much more likely to fall out of our very fragile housing system. There just aren’t enough homes for people and if you are dealing with significant issues related to your stability, you are more likely to end up homeless.
Could you give us an idea of where these veterans live and their daily struggles?
I think one of the things that became really clear during the pandemic, but even before, is that veterans really suffer with some of our programs that are designed to help them.
The living conditions can be so tight in a shelter situation, so the rules can be so strict. This isn’t a trauma informed way to house somebody. Things are unreliable when they need to be reliable. There may be a lot of routines, and routines can help people to feel safe. But, if there are unpredictable people living in very close proximity, that is not a recipe for success. So, we wanted to provide a place that was peaceful and where veterans could let go of that hypervigilance that comes from the traumas that they have endured.
Where do these Vets normally go for help or basic services (e.g. food, medical, housing) in Santa Cruz?
There are two main routes to get support. One is a very strong mutual aid system, with groups like Veterans for Veterans that are made up of veterans who want to help fellow veterans. The more traditional roads would be our VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) post that you see in most towns in America. There are also federal resources and folks who are case managers for veterans to make sure they are accessing the VA (Veterans Affairs) hospitals, transportation, and benefits. We have a housing authority that has worked very hard on housing vouchers for veterans. So, there is definitely both an informal and a formal system of accessing resources.
Specifically, how did your foundation step up to support the Veterans in Santa Cruz? Tell us a bit about how this project came to life. Who was involved?
This has been such a pleasure.
One of the great joys of my job is that people come with an idea, and sometimes the idea seems like we could actually get this done!
This is one of those projects… which was to acquire an old lodge in the Santa Cruz mountains that had served as a tourist destination for decades. Many generations of families went and stayed in these cabins in the redwoods, near a river, and enjoyed themselves in the summer. During the pandemic, the owners of the lodge got really tired. They are older and with all the regulations around COVID, plus needing to do everything themselves, and losing workers, they just got really tired and decided it was time to sell. At the same time, the state began to house homeless people, for COVID safety reasons in some hotel rooms. So, there were actually two veterans who were living there. In speaking with those veterans, they had a really different experience living at the lodge, than they had living in shelters in the past. The main difference is the setting. These are very small cabins under the redwoods. They are peaceful, they are quiet, they are tranquil. It’s a beautiful place. It’s not the hustle bustle of the shelter. It’s not fighting for your next plate of food. It’s a quiet place of your own. These two veterans were thriving there.
The more we talked to other veterans, we began to realize that this is truly a place where people can go to heal, to build community, and to contribute back to community. So, we got really excited about helping with the acquisition of the lodge.
This project seems a bit risky and some actually thought it was a crazy idea. So, why were you so proactive in advocating for this support?
I feel that the Veterans Village is a credible pathway and solution toward ending veteran homelessness. So, if there’s an action that we can take that really gets our community on a path toward a solution, then I want to jump in with my whole heart. On Veterans Day 2021, we were able to launch a campaign and it was also the day that the Vets Hall (the nonprofit that we worked with) went into contract to acquire the property. So, we launched a fundraising campaign on Veterans Day and we raised $600,000 in a couple weeks. The community was clearly really excited, and that became the central part of the financing for the project. But we also needed real financing. So, we partnered with our local county bank. We have done other deals with them before, and they provided the bigger loan. Then, we provided a $500,000 loan to make the capital more affordable at a lower interest rate. So, the combination of the fundraising, and the loan from Santa Cruz county bank, and also our loan, is what has made the acquisition of the property possible.
How does this project tie into your impact investing program? If you didn’t have an impact investing program, could this have happened?
No, this project would not have happened without a loan from the Community Foundation, and without our leadership in raising funds and in bringing other parties together to support the project. Our impact investing program, that we do in partnership with Community Capital Advisors, has been so essential. I was able to call Marc and say “Hey Marc, this project is happening, what should we be looking at?” As you mentioned most of the veterans don’t have employment, and so he was able to analyze and look at how we can pay for this over time through housing vouchers. We understood early on that it was going to have to be paid with what’s called a project-based housing voucher, as opposed to an individual-based housing voucher, and that allows for stability of rental income over time. So, Marc was able to do that analysis. We were able to look at what we need in reserves for a really old lodge, and to make sure that this thing doesn’t just fall apart. Then, most importantly, how do we expand it. We don’t want to just serve 12 guys, we want to maximize the property’s use so that more people can have this kind of a setting to live their best lives. So, working with Marc on that was really essential and to already have a process in place. I would hate for an opportunity like this to come up, and we have never done a loan before. It’s good that we had a little bit of practice under our belts with other loans, so that we could move quickly and get under contract to buy this property.
I imagine you faced many challenges in launching this project, including the need for fundraising. What were some of the key hurdles or barriers, and what was your strategy to overcome them?
Our idea, which is similar to a lot of our ideas at the foundation, is that we use private dollars from local donors and generous neighbors. This helps us get something started quickly.
Often our role is that we can kickstart something quickly with local and generous dollars. Then, the challenge is how do we get the public to come in and sustain it.
The public sector is really responsible for big issues like these, but the public sector can’t act quickly enough to do the kinds of things that we do. So, I am always looking for that graceful handoff, where our loan gets repaid, and to where there is sustained revenue into the future. This project was tricky because that graceful handoff that we were looking for came in the form of very competitive grants that our governor had released to help combat our huge homelessness problem. So, these grants were called “Project Homekey” and they are very competitive. As much as our county has more than it’s fair share of housing related, and specifically homelessness problems, we don’t get the same attention as San Francisco and Los Angeles, as we are a small coastal community. So, we were very worried about our competitiveness for these grants, and the process was delayed and very cumbersome. We were on pins and needles, waiting to find out if we got the grants. Then, we were waiting for the award to be signed, and then waiting for the funds to come in. So, it’s been a long process and probably not as graceful as we had hoped. Nonetheless, we are so grateful for our county government for getting this application through, and the state for funding it. Now, the loans are paid off and we have financing for expansion and renovation of the property.
Besides your foundation, what other groups or people were critical to the roll-out of this program?
The board members and volunteers of the Vets Hall, and the consultants on the fundraising just did an incredible job of listening to veterans and understanding what the needs are, and designing a program that really works. The Free Guide is another veterans support organization that has done a great job of fundraising and supporting veterans by providing some case management. The Vets Hall is the nonprofit that we worked with, that actually purchased the property. Their leadership, mostly from their members and director has just been extraordinary. One veteran had a vision of housing the veterans in a village for a long time, and that vision really carried us through. Then finally, my financing partner in crime, the Santa Cruz County Bank, really believed in this project from the outset and put in countless hours of volunteer time and has been a pleasure to work with in getting this financing together. Then, we had a really great county supervisor dedicated to housing issues in our county. He really took this on and made sure to get us through all the cranks of bureaucracy, and to get us to where we are today. So, these things take so many people coming together. I also want to add the Housing Authority, which made sure we got project-based housing vouchers for sustainability into the future. So, the Veterans Village took a village.
For the veterans, what does a normal day look like now, versus before? How has their situation or lives changed as a result of your support?
The property is being renovated so only about 6 veterans are there right now. This is only a one-year old project, and so it is still very new. As I said, the financing really just came together. There is now a place for them to contribute, as veterans get to help renovate the place. I think that it helps to create a greater sense of community, and a place to call home. It is quiet, so you can read, you can go for a hike, you can cook your own food, and you are not reliant on a big congregate meal. It’s also right on a bus line, so access to services is quite easy. So, it is a community that is developing.
Since these veterans have been homeless and without jobs, it seems they are not able to contribute financially. In the years to come, how will this program continue to be financially sustainable?
There are really two major public sources. One is the Project Homekey grant which allows for the construction and renovation, and the other is the project-based housing voucher which helps with the on-going rental income.
How do you envision this project to develop and expand? Example, will there be more housing units or other support services offered to the veterans?
Veterans receive case management services and permanent support of housing. They are connected to resources. They have a manager on-site looking out for them. This is a supportive environment, and not a ‘good luck, best of luck to you’ environment.
We think of this as permanent supportive housing, where veterans can receive services on-site, but also can be connected and linked to other existing resources.
How can the rest of us get involved in supporting the veterans of Santa Cruz County, or do you have any other ideas for how we can support our own local Veteran communities?
I think the real important thing is to listen to veterans about what isn’t working with current housing options. We learned that there was a level of tranquility that was needed, and that was different than what was being offered elsewhere. We really knew that this property was going to be special.
Listening to veterans about what the needs are, what would make housing a success, and why it’s been so hard to come by. That deeper understanding really led us to this terrific solution.
Veteran’s Village of Santa Cruz - Official website + CFSCC Press Release
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Susan True, CEO of the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County