Homeless services event in Santa Cruz draws about 1,000: Volunteers offer job advice, eye exams and animal care

SANTA CRUZ - Rosaline Gustafson has been living in Capitola for 26 years. When her landlord died and the building was sold in February, she started living out of a Ford Taurus and a storage unit.

Overwhelmed, the 61-year-old looked for help at the annual Project Homeless Connect event Tuesday at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. She set up mail services, made an appointment for psychological services and even received acupuncture treatment to relieve some pain from sleeping in her car.

"My shoulder and neck were getting tweaked," Gustafson said. "And (the acupuncturist) just talked to me for a while, which was really nice."

Tuesday's event brought together about 40 nonprofit groups and government agencies as a one-stop shop for humanitarian services. Organized by the United Way, the services ranged from free haircuts to bicycle repair to veterinary care and dentistry.

Organizers estimated about 1,000 clients attended, a figure similar to last year.

"It's really rare for people to access so many services in one spot," said Monica Martinez, executive director of the Homeless Services Center, who also commended hundreds of volunteers. "It's been really phenomenal to see so many people from the community take time out of their day."

Participants came from Santa Cruz and were bussed in from Watsonville and Felton. They filled out a questionnaire identifying their most pressing needs and were paired with an "advocate" volunteer who shepherded them through services set up inside the auditorium and parking lot.

Teresa Rodriguez, a participant from Watsonville, received an eye exam and a free pair of reading glasses. She said she had gone a year without glasses.

John Sorbie, a 56-year-old from Boulder Creek, concentrated on his job search. After he had a stroke in February, he lost his job as a cook.

"It's been tough for me," he said. "I can't find a job and I need money. I can't pay the rent."

Other clients received Department of Motor Vehicles ID cards. Vouchers were distributed for free clothing from the Salvation Army.

Because many of the homeless in the county have dogs, shots and microchip identification units were provided by the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"The No. 1 thing we're trying to push to is to spay and neuter dogs," said Linda Puzziferro, a client services supervisor with the SPCA.

Peter Connery, vice president of Watsonville-based Applied Survey Research, has spent years researching the county's roughly 2,700 homeless people.

"One of the most striking findings is the lack of understanding of what services are available to them," Connery said. "They're just unable to navigate through the system. Events like this allow them to see all of them in one day."

Follow Sentinel reporter Stephen Baxter on Twitter @sbaxter_sc