If all of the 2,895 unsheltered houseless individuals surveyed in Santa Cruz County were to line up for a shelter bed, they would make-up a line the length of over 17 football fields.

Only 18 percent of houseless individuals in Santa Cruz county are sheltered, meaning they’re either in emergency shelters or in transitional housing. A Santa Cruz group known as the 180/180 Initiative has thus far housed 154 chronically houseless individuals.

“Chronically houseless” refers to individuals who have been un-housed for extended periods of time and who also suffer from a disabling condition. These conditions include mental illnesses, physical disabilities, substance abuse, chronic physical illness and developmental disability, and when these are paired with being houseless, these individuals are at a greater risk of dying on the streets.

Of the 369 unsheltered individuals surveyed, 68 percent reported a disabling condition, according to the 2013 Homeless Census & Survey conducted by Santa Cruz County.

In late January, 180/180 took on a new goal of housing 25 chronically houseless individuals in Santa Cruz and 12 in Watsonville in 100 days.

“We chose those numbers under a lot of debate,” said 180/180 Initiative team leader and Homeless Service Center (HSC) public policy manager Sarah Emmert. “Some wanted more and some wanted less, but it felt right for the group to choose a goal that seemed challenging to obtain. If we set a goal that seemed easy, I don’t think we’d get the same amount of eagerness to accomplish it.”

This effort has been dubbed the “100-Day Dash,” an idea arising from a “100K-mile” campaign workshop in Los Angeles early last year. The “100K-mile” campaign, a national effort 180/180 is participating in, housed over 80,000 of the nation’s most chronically houseless individuals, with a goal of housing 100,000 by July of this year.

“We move them into permanent supportive housing so they don’t die on the streets,” said 180/180 Initiative project manager Philip Kramer. “On average 34 people die homeless in Santa Cruz County [per year]. The average age [lived] is 50 years old.”

In an effort to curb the alarming numbers of houseless individuals, Kramer said the 180/180 Initiative established specific goals early in its conception.

“We went to LA with some specific agendas in mind,” Kramer said. “One was the 100-day approach to help us accelerate our housing push. We left with a really audacious goal — to go from an average housing placement rate of three a month to 12 a month.”

Kramer said 180/180 has held on to most of its accelerated growth, housing an average of 10 to 11 chronically houseless individuals a month. The 100-Day Dash has already housed four individuals and has 12 on the pathway to housing. The team is confident they will reach their goal by May.

The Homeless Persons Health Project (HPHP), the probation department and both the police departments and city governments in Santa Cruz and Watsonville support this project. The 100-Day Dash is funded by various community donors and philanthropists.

“[These groups] bring their expertise in their particular area, such as looking for housing and supportive services,” Kramer said. “In the case of HPHP they’re bringing their experience of providing medical treatment and outreach to this target population.”

The 180/180 Initiative uses a vulnerability index survey tool to decide which people to house. This survey assesses how at risk an individual is of dying on the streets.

“We then connect the [houseless] with a specific program or service as soon as possible, and then once we’ve found that program or service or housing subsidy, we use case managers and volunteer housing navigators,” said 180/180 Initiative team leader and Homeless Service Center (HSC) public policy manager Sarah Emmert. “We ask the private market for housing, just like you or I would go look for housing.”

UC Santa Cruz students have volunteered as housing navigators, helping houseless individuals find and access appropriate housing. UCSC psychology department chair Heather Bullock, with the help of UCSC students, will evaluate the cost effectiveness of the 180/180 Initiative’s campaign.

“The whole point of the vulnerability index is to use these 40 questions to identify someone’s risk of death on the streets,” Kramer said. “The idea is this is the humanitarian and right thing to do. It argues for fair use of the community’s resources.”

Ambulance rides, law enforcement interventions and medical bills add up in public service costs, yet studies show it to be more effective financially for a city to house its most chronically houseless individuals. The total costs for houseless individuals two years after placement in supportive housing drops by 42 percent, as shown in a 2009 homeless cost study by United Way.

“It’s a fabulous thing,” said Dr. Paul Lee, a Ph.D. philosopher from Harvard who started the Homeless Garden Project (HSC) as well as other houseless programs. “However, it tends to obscure the fact that they’re taking 180 out of the roughly 4,000 who are in need of emergency shelters. The word homeless becomes a screen for ‘emergency shelter.’”

Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed in 2011 said they were living in the county prior to becoming houseless.

“They are our neighbors — there isnt necessarily an outside influence,” said 180/180 Initiative team leader and Homeless Service Center (HSC) public policy manager Sarah Emmert. “Our surveys with 180/180 show that on average [houseless] people live in Santa Cruz County for 19 years and are homeless for eight years. They’ve been in Santa Cruz for a long time.”