The mountain town of Ben Lomond has many cool attributes: a beautiful art center, community hall, biker bar, good restaurants and open spaces. Now, the town can add one more feather to its cap: a dedicated space for veterans to call home.
Jaye’s Timberlane on Highway 9 boasts 10 unique, furnished cabins beneath a redwood grove, and has long been a catchall for visitors to the Santa Cruz Mountains. In the next few months, the property is being converted to a permanent supportive housing (PSH) site for homeless veterans in the area, and founders say the positive impact will reverberate through the community.
Hutch Collier, Commander of the Aptos Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 10110, is a longtime resident of Boulder Creek. Having lived in the area since the early ’60s, Collier recognizes the need for this type of support for his fellow veterans.
“This project is by and for veterans, and my post will support this housing in any way possible. I truly believe we should take care of our own,” said Collier.
Added Santa Cruz Veterans Memorial Building (Vets Hall) Executive Director Chris Cottingham: “Our veterans cannot afford to live in Santa Cruz and many struggle to get by on their current benefits. As we see more veterans come home from Afghanistan in need of support and community, the time is now to develop a solution for permanent supportive housing for our Santa Cruz County veterans. This project is led by veterans for veterans. And the village atmosphere will support community as well as self-sufficiency.”
Keith Collins, the co-founder of the program along with Cottingham, has been in affordable housing for about 20 years. His experience with various housing authorities throughout the Bay Area, paired with his hands-on knowledge of running veterans’ programs in Santa Clara County, creates a deep well of expertise in the PSH arena, which is an integral part of the project.
“I’ve always wanted to do something to support our local veterans,” says Collins.
He contacted Supervisor Manu Koenig, who oversees Santa Cruz County’s 1st District, about the idea, and Koenig was on board almost immediately.
“Supervisor Koenig put me in touch with Chris Cottingham … and once Chris and I connected, it was a perfect blend of shared interests,” Collins said.
As a result of their partnership, Collins joined the Veterans’ Advisory Committee, and the project to create sustainable, affordable housing for homeless veterans was off and running.
Collins cites the Jaye’s Timberlane site as the best of all worlds for the population it intends to serve.
“It has a rural feel, but it’s close to transportation and retail services, and the veterans who move here will be able to develop their own, close-knit community. We’ll have on-site supportive services, including Grey Bears’ delivery of fresh groceries to residents,” Collins said.
His wife, Tamiko, has already been in touch with Grey Bears, and the organization has promised to provide anything that’s needed.
“Furniture, electronics, they have it all, and they are in total support of this venture,” she says.
Added Collins: “It’s really been a blessing to get so many organizations and individuals on board with this project.”
That includes the Vets Hall Board of Trustees, Front Street, Housing Matters, veterans’ support groups and local officials like Koenig and Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson.
“We have local private donors too, so it’s all about buy-in from the local community,” he said.
A project like this doesn’t happen overnight. Stoney Brook, an advocate for Santa Cruz vets, initiated the Veterans Treatment Court, which launched in 2015. Brook’s experience with veterans and law enforcement (he’s a former Santa Cruz County sheriff deputy and District Attorney’s Office investigator) made him the perfect point person for launching this idea.
“I’ve been thinking about this for the last five to six years,” said Brook. He looks around the area, spreading his arms wide. “I think they call this ‘harmonic convergence.’”
With the property’s escrow set to close in January, the team is excited to be nearing its goal.
“We are gearing up, doing inspections, and applying for Home Key funds from the state. We’re hoping to get funded between February/March, and open the doors soon after. Initially, we’ll have 15-16 beds available and intend to increase residency to 40 formerly homeless veterans,” Collins said.
The potential addition of recreation vehicles and trailers from Housing Matters will allow the property to support a greater population, and with talk of having additional services on-site (mental health, drug and alcohol counseling, case management, job and computer training), the group hopes that residents of the complex will have their needs met in a safe, supportive environment.
Housing Matters will provide a list of pre-screened applicants for the property, and all residents will have HUD VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) vouchers to subsidize their monthly rent.
“We also want to raise funding for a dedicated shuttle that will take residents around town as needed,” Collins said.
In addition, the local Eagle Scout troop has promised to invest time and effort in keeping up the property with gardening and debris removal.
“It’s the more, the merrier for us,” Collins said.
“Usually, when you get a lot of agencies involved in one project, it’s like a pit bull guarding its food dish. This process has been so open and transparent that it just makes your heart sing. It’s a dream come true,” Brook said.
For local residents who would like to weigh in on the project, the group is holding community town hall meetings on Dec. 6 and Dec. 10 at Highlands Park Senior Center in Ben Lomond at 6pm. For those who wish to offer financial support, donations can be made online through the Community Foundation at cfscc.org/vetsvillage.