July 17, 2019

By Jessica A. York

SANTA CRUZ — Qualifying as one of Santa Cruz County’s most vulnerable people experiencing “chronic homeless,” Tony Canepa ranks as one of more than 800 who have been connected to housing with support services locally since 2012.

Across Santa Cruz County, chronic homelessness is estimated to have dropped by nearly a third in the past two years, according to preliminary census results released last month. The housing of chronically homeless persons such as Canepa, 67, has been prioritized and tracked by a multi-agency initiative of service providers dubbed 180/2020. A banner with the latest count stretches across the sound barrier wall behind the Homeless Services Center, facing Highway 1 traffic.

Canepa, a Santa Cruz native who said he had struggled with drug addiction in the past, was given a subsidized housing voucher that he used to get into a Watsonville studio late last year. Now, he said, housing makes a person “feel like a human again.” Prior to that, he struggled with health issues after surgery.

“It had been a couple of years. I was on the street for over a year with my leg rotting off, basically. It was infected, I had edema. I got MIRSA and I’d been to the emergency room at Dominican about five or six times and got nowhere with them,” Canepa said, describing his time on the streets of Santa Cruz. “I was spending $500 to $600 at least a month on just bandages, trying to keep it — there were just fluids just pouring out of my leg.”

While the exact reasons for the county’s drop in chronic homelessness to about 400 people are unclear, one of several efforts rolled out in the past two years includes the Smart Path to Housing and Health Homelessness system. Smart Path is the local name for a “coordinated entry” program, known colloquially as a “no wrong door” approach to linking those in need with appropriate service providers in a uniform way. The Santa Cruz County Human Services Department-curated list had about 1,300 persons/families on it recently, and had nearly 200 persons/families moved off the list since January 2018, according to county Senior Health Services Manager Leslie Goodfriend. Some 30 organizations conduct Smart Path assessments before the county Human Services Department prioritizes and provides referrals to housing programs based on the list.

Turning point

It was not until Canepa’s dire condition was featured in a live Facebook recording, he said, that he came to the attention of those who could offer him some help in housing, benefits and additional medical care. The outpouring of support from good-hearted people, said Canepa, “blew me away.”

“There’s a lot of people who care, a lot of people who want to help, who get discouraged because of all the abuse and everything else,” Canepa said in a recent interview by phone. “I’m just so grateful to so many people. I never would have made it as long. HPHP (Homeless Persons Health Project) saved my life, got me into the RCC (Recuperative Care Center) to give me a chance to heal. You get your head back together and you start feeling alive again and you’ve got so many people caring there that it really motivates you.”

Defining characteristics of someone considered chronically homeless are suffering from a disabling condition, continuously having been homeless for one year or more and/or have experienced four or more episodes of homelessness within the last three years. The 180/2020 initiative is based on the philosophical model prioritizing providing those in need with “housing first,” combined with services to improve health outcomes, housing stability and community integration.

In Santa Cruz’s tight and expensive housing market, the difficulty for service provider caseworkers lies in finding a sufficient supply of affordable housing and/or landlords who accept rent-capped federally subsided housing vouchers via the Housing Authority of Santa Cruz County. The Housing Authority increased its Section 8 vouchers by 4% in the past two years, including those for homeless veterans and medically vulnerable homeless adults, meaning an additional 50 homeless persons hold housing vouchers and are actively seeking a home, according to the Homeless Action Partnership coalition.

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