A day of quality-of-life services for Santa Cruz County's down-and-out

SANTA CRUZ -- Bud Adams says he has been homeless since the age of 12.

A native of Amarillo, Texas, the 29-year-old Adams has spent more than half of his life on the streets.

Why? "I've had a lot of heartbreaks in my life," Adams said.

Tuesday at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, Adams happily took advantage of the various services available at the second annual Project Homeless Connect Santa Cruz.

Escorted by volunteer and UC Santa Cruz junior Sophia Petraki, Adams was tested for HIV, received foot care, had his laundry washed and enjoyed a hot meal before receiving vouchers for food and other supplies.

A one-day communitywide event geared toward providing housing support and quality-of-life services to homeless people, Project Homeless Connect was first held in 2004 in San Francisco by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Considered a cost-effective way to deliver services at one time and in one location, Project Homeless Connect Santa Cruz also welcomed individuals or families considered low-income and at risk for being homeless.

Forty booths were manned by volunteers or representatives from various agencies geared toward providing immediate relief or information about housing, employment and Social Security benefits as well as lifestyle and wellness services.

"One of the factors that makes this work is that all of the different agencies function independently, but we all come together here in one location," said Kymberly Lacrosse, the community organizer for the United Way of Santa Cruz and a coordinator of the event. 

"We're more organized than last year in terms of layout," Lacrosse continued. "We have made the services that proved to be more in demand last year more available this year, such as medical and dental as well as haircuts."

Carlos Perez attended the event with his parents, his two brothers and two nephews. The family is currently living in Santa Cruz, but Perez, 24, categorized the group as a whole as low-income.

Perez took advantage of the photo booth where volunteer Bev Peltzer took his photo, mounted it on a card and gave him an envelope and stamp to send the card to his 6-year-old son, Damian, living in Sacramento.

"Right now, we're having trouble, so all of this free stuff and the food and dental helps us all so much," Perez said. "I plan on going to the housing booth and the DMV next. I was looking for the food benefits when I heard that you can get a free picture."

"One of the things that is so great is that so many volunteers here are bilingual," Perez continued. "It's great that you don't have to speak just English to come here."

Santa Cruz Vice Mayor Don Lane chaired the steering community of Project Homeless Connect Santa Cruz.

The United Way of Santa Cruz County estimates more than 4,600 people are homeless in Santa Cruz County, many for the first time. For them, shame and lack of familiarity with how to obtain services are major obstacles.

Lane said that reaching out toward the South County was an adjustment that was made after last year's event.

"We really promoted this event in Watsonville this year," Lane said. "Some of the shelters and churches in Watsonville organized van pools so that at least 100 people got rides here from Watsonville."

Lane said 1,000 people attended last year's event with 400 volunteers helping out. This year, the organizers expected a bigger turnout, but have also seen more volunteers contribute their time.

"The number of volunteers participating is a huge indicator to us that this is a successful event," Lane said during a short break from his emceeing duties.

"One of the main purposes of this event is creating links between those who are homeless and those who are housed -- like the volunteers. Here, you have a large number of volunteers making contact with a large number of homeless."

More than 80 volunteers from four area churches helped to prepare and distribute the free meal. The menu included spaghetti with a choice of homemade meat sauce or marinara sauce, an Italian salad and homemade rolls and cookies.

"We made 3,000 rolls and baked 3,000 cookies and have enough food here for 2,500 meals," said Paddy Brady, the volunteer head cook from Santa Cruz Bible Church. "Last year, we made 1,500 meals and just about served it all. Any leftovers today will go to different homeless kitchens."

For Adams, the event was a benefit in a number of ways.

"Today was a great relief," said Adams, who's been in Santa Cruz County for the past 10 years. "This was a great help to those of us who actually need help."