Two years ago the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) established Project Roomkey in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The idea behind the program was simple but important: protect people experiencing homelessness from coronavirus.
The success of that program led to the development of Homekey in 2021, which strived to place homeless individuals in more permanent home-like settings. That venture snowballed into an ambitious, statewide push to bring more attention—and solutions—to the chronically homeless, resulting in Homekey Round 2.
According to HCD, it is the third iteration of a targeted “opportunity for state, regional and local public entities to develop a broad range of housing types … and to convert commercial properties and other existing buildings to Permanent or Interim Housing for the Target Population.”
With approximately $1.4 billion in grant funding available in Fall of 2021, nonprofits raced to submit applications in the hopes of justifying some of that money for their communities.
One of the demographics served by HCD is homeless or unhoused veterans in Santa Cruz County.
Keith Collins, director of operations and services for the new Veterans Village in Ben Lomond, believed there was an opportunity for the two agencies to find a partnership, and the nonprofit’s résumé struck Homekey 2 in just the right way, resulting in a grant award of $6.425 million dollars.
Collins and his Veterans Village team were stunned.
“We are the first Veterans Village funded by the Homekey program within the state, and the first project in our area provided grant money with Homekey funds,” said Collins.
As of March 5, California had nearly 11,000 homeless veterans within its borders, nearly five times more than the next state. Additionally, California has the highest rate of homelessness in the country, leaving policymakers struggling to find solutions.
While the Veterans Village in Ben Lomond can only house 25 vets, Collins is optimistic about the difference that makes locally.
“We currently have five veterans on site, and we’re working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing to bring in another 20 qualified households for our project,” said Collins. “We want to get the most vulnerable people off the street, and get them housed. We’re trying to make a dent in the total number of unhoused veterans, and we’re looking at possibly launching another similar project down in South County, all in the name of reaching our goal to end veteran homelessness in Santa Cruz County by 2025. I think we can do it if we keep working together.”
The Homekey 2 money gifted to the Ben Lomond Veterans Village will go toward cabin upgrades, new construction, sewer system improvements and basic infrastructure enhancements. After that, says Collins, the next push is for administrative and operational support.
“We’ve got some veterans from downtown who come and donate their time to help with the property, and we’ve partnered with Front Street to use some of their staff to bring property management and case management services on board,” he said.
The help will be appreciated by the Veterans Village leadership team, but especially by Collins and his wife, Tamika, who have been the point people to help new residents make the transition from sleeping under a freeway to sleeping in a bed.
“We have a special population here, and we want to make sure they get the best services. We’re looking to hire the very best people in the industry, and we’re hoping that the Homekey funds award lends our mission some credibility in the arena of veterans’ services,” said Collins. “We were the underdog, and we’d never done anything like this. If the state believes enough in us to invest in our project, then maybe other agencies and private donors will jump on board and lend a hand.”
In terms of the neighborhood reception—which was an initial fear for the leadership team—Collins says it’s been better than he could have imagined.
“There was some initial concern that we were going to be bringing in campers or RVs on the property, but we’re looking to install high-end modular homes,” said Collins. “It’s been a total community effort, and we’ve had great communication with our local residents. We hold a volunteer day on the first Saturday of each month, and members of Rotary Club and other veterans’ organizations have come out to help with cleanup of the property. We welcome locals to participate, and see the difference we’re making in people’s lives. It’s been a wonderful experience so far, and we want the veterans and the community to come together in support of this effort.”
Interested in contributing your time, treasure or talent to thank and support those who have served? Visit their website at vetsvillages.com.