Housing Matters, the largest nonprofit in Santa Cruz County working on solutions to houselessness, was awarded a $2.5 million grant on Dec. 9 from the Day 1 Families Fund. 

The grant is earmarked for family houselessness services. Housing Matters explained the grant money will be added to existing funding, which will help loosen eligibility requirements for applicants and allow more families to receive support.

“Part of what we want to do with this funding is be able to help families who don’t qualify for one of the existing community-based programs,” said Cassie Blom Housing Matters Communications Director. “To create the ability to serve families who are otherwise falling through the cracks.”

Housing Matters manages four shelters and community-based programs that connect recipients without homes, or are on the brink of houselessness, with stable permanent housing. Services include rapid housing, case management services, assistance in recovering lost documents, and access to hot showers and restrooms. They also provide assistance in getting housing choice vouchers for the federal low-income housing program. 

According to a press briefing from the organization, its goal is to finance an expansion of community programs in order to bring family houselessness to what it calls “functional zero” by 2026.

“Ending family homelessness in five years sounds audacious and big,” said Blom. “It essentially means that somebody is able to access services so quickly — and such effective and efficient services — that their experience of homelessness is really, really brief.” 

Blom said that “functional zero” is not the same as the end of houselessness. The goal is for families to immediately enter shelters and receive the necessary resources for getting back on their feet in the event that they lose their home. 

“Right now, if you are a family experiencing homelessness, and you call and ask for services, there is a pretty significant wait time,” Blom said. “It basically doesn’t happen that a family needs shelter and they’re offered shelter the same day that they reach out for services. That just extends their period of crisis.”

Susana Portillo, a Santa Cruz resident and single mother of three, has been using the Housing Matters family houselessness accommodations for the past four months after losing her job in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I thought I was going to live with the people I saw on the street,” Portillo* said. “[Housing Matters] was like a blessing to me because it’s sad to be without a home, but it’s much worse when you have children.”

With the help of case management services from Diana Flores, the Rebele Family Shelter manager, Portillo has been connected to a more permanent housing arrangement. 

Portillo’s eligibility to receive services last year was contingent on her being a California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKS) recipient. 

Blom explained that because of how Housing Matters was funded prior to the Day 1 grant, many of its programs had eligibility requirements that limit who receives assistance.

“A lot of our families that come in, unfortunately, are not eligible for certain programs,” Flores said. “It’s because their income under their guidelines is too high.” 

Both Flores and Blom say that the lack of restrictions associated with the new grant money increases who can be reached by their services. Those in Portillo’s position will continue to receive assistance from the existing funds. The new funds will support families who wouldn’t have previously qualified. 

“We’re hoping to hire to expand our staff pretty immediately,” Blom said. ”[We want to] start to make progress on the waitlist and get down to the point where we can give people service and offer people services the day that they request them.”  

Blom and Flores said their operations are a part of a larger network of collaborating actors including local government, nonprofit organizations, and landlords, all of whom have had to drastically pivot their operations as a result of COVID-19. 

Flores said COVID-19 has weighed on many people’s financial and housing situations, and she highlighted houselessness as an issue that has always existed in Santa Cruz. 

“I’ve met some families where everything was great, they had their family, they had their home, and just one small thing happened,” Flores said. “I think about that all the time — anybody can be in this situation.”

*Quote has been translated from Spanish.