By Lynn Graebner.

Brad Schwartz had been homeless, living mostly outside, for the last 30 years. Today the 57-year-old is cleaning and repairing a cottage he now calls home, thanks to a homeless housing initiative in Santa Cruz called 180/180.

In 2012 Santa Cruz joined a national effort striving to house 100,000 of the most chronically homeless and medically vulnerable people in the country by July of 2014.

The multi-agency initiative 180/180 formed to house 180 of those 100,000 and it is nearing its goal with more than 136 people housed with support from social service agencies, nonprofits and volunteers county-wide.

Across the country 235 other communities joined the 100,000 Homes Campaign and, with more than 83,000 housed, they are also nearing their collective target.

“More importantly, these communities are working differently now,” said Jake Maguire, spokesman for 100,000 Homes, a New York City-based initiative of the national nonprofit Community Solutions.

100,000 Homes is based on the “Housing First” model: getting the homeless into housing first and then providing supportive services addressing addictions, mental health problems and employment. Traditionally many homeless service providers have made permanent housing contingent on completing addiction and employment programs.

Housing First has been so successful that Opening Doors, the 2010 Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, adopted permanent supportive housing using the Housing First approach. Opening Doors cites research in Seattle showing this approach reduced Medicaid costs for this population by 41 percent and overall costs of shelter services, emergency and hospital care, addiction centers and jails by 75 percent.

While many communities struggle to pay for staff to help house the most physically and mentally vulnerable homeless, Santa Cruz has been very successful at mobilizing volunteers, Maguire said.

One of 180/180’s biggest champions is retired aerospace executive John Dietz, who now trains volunteers as housing navigators who find rentals and negotiate with landlords. Six interns at the University of California Santa Cruz have joined the team searching the web daily for rental listings.

Donald, who is 58, and declined to use his last name, lost his wife of 19 years in 2005 and then his job and his house in Santa Rosa to the economic downturn. Unemployment and depression led him to drinking and drugs and a cancer diagnosis resulted in the removal of a kidney. He may also need back surgery due to his former heavy equipment job.

A 180/180 housing navigator convinced a skeptical landlord that Donald was reliable. Now he is the floor manager and supervises contractors for the landlord.

“There’s a big trust that has built up in three or four months,” Dietz said.

Perhaps the biggest shift for Santa Cruz and other communities is getting homeless service providers, working together to change systems.

Los Angeles County has approximately 50,000 homeless, 25 percent of whom are chronically homeless. Yet those 25 percent use 75 percent of the $875 million L.A. spends annually on public resources for all homeless, states a 2012 report by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce.

In 2010 the Business Leaders Task Force on Homelessness, a partnership of United Way and the Chamber, launched Home for Good, an action plan by city and county agencies, nonprofits, housing partners and others to end chronic and veteran homelessness by 2016. To date they have housed more than 10,000 people.

“We need a greater awareness that this is a solvable problem,” said Chris Carey, executive vice president and chief financial officer of City National Bank in Los Angeles and co-chair of the Business Leaders Task Force.

Salt Lake City has come as close as it can get to solving homelessness for chronically homeless veterans, said Melanie Zamora, director of housing programs for The Road Home, a nonprofit social services agency assisting the homeless of Salt Lake County.

In 2012 her agency attended a boot camp by 100,000 Homes and the Rapid Results Institute Inc., a nonprofit in Stamford, CT. Officials from the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs (VA) and local key decision makers collaborated to streamline the housing process.

Previously the VA homeless outreach office was very inaccessible and focused mainly on vets leaving the hospital, Zamora said. Now they have representatives on site at The Road Home shelter.

“That brought their resources right to the front door.”

180/180 is also making progress with government agencies. In July of 2012 the Housing Authority of Santa Cruz County agreed to set aside 40 subsidized section 8 housing vouchers for the disabled and medically vulnerable homeless. In August of 2013 it increased those to 120.

Having a campaign like 180/180, bringing local agencies together to coordinate services is a huge help, said Housing Authority director Ken Cole.

“We’d be hard pressed to serve this population without them,” he said.

Housing the chronically homeless takes a lot of hand holding. Still, 180/180 has a retention rate of 97 percent so far, Dietz said.

He helped Brad Schwartz land his lease by going with him to meet the landlord and helping with house repairs. Schwartz can’t believe his good fortune.

“This place is amazing, it’s like Shangri-La,” he said of the tiny two-room cottage. Still, the transition from living outside to housing was hard.

“I thought the transition was going to kill me,” he said. The thought of being responsible for rent on such a limited income was overwhelming, but he’s motivated to make it work.

“These guys are going to bat for me, I’d better psychologically purge myself of pessimism and paranoia,” he said. “This has really restored my faith in myself.”

But not everyone thrives in their first or second housing placement, said 180/180 project manager Philip Kramer. And organizations like Wings, a volunteer homeless advocacy group, with 25 volunteers from five churches, help with the challenges that can cause people to lose housing, said co-founder Peggy Benedum. Wings finds donated furniture and household supplies and helps families resolve issues with schools, landlords and health care.

What happens with 180/180 after July 2014 has yet to be decided, but Kramer hopes system changes the project has initiated will endure.

“Permanent supportive housing has been around a long time in Santa Cruz County,” Kramer said. “We’re reaching out to the community and saying this is a community-wide issue, and it needs a community-wide response.”

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Originally posted at California Healthline.