Cynthia Chase brings her 20+ year career working to advance systems change and community wellbeing in government, criminal justice, education, and clinical settings to her role on the Housing Matters Board of Directors. As a social worker, nonprofit leader, professor, and previous Mayor of Santa Cruz, Cynthia’s expertise on social justice and advocacy stems across a diverse array of professional experiences. Unsurprisingly, she has been reminded of the importance of solving homelessness throughout every step of her career.

“None of my work was ever explicitly focused on homelessness, but everyone I worked with were folks who were on the margins for some reason or another. Many of them experienced homelessness regularly or in a pervasive way throughout their lives, particularly because of the folks who are in the intergenerational cycle of incarceration.

“When working in criminal justice, I realized that so many of the folks re-offending or recidivating had other contextual factors contributing to their actions. They didn’t have a job or a house, safe people to be around or a safe place to live. They didn’t have access to healthcare, medications, or treatment. These factors directly contributed to their continued criminal behavior. But, if you were to address those factors you would likely see these criminal behaviors diminish if not disappear. So, I quickly learned that if you don’t start by addressing the root causes, everything we are doing is just a bandaid. It is just prolonging future challenges. If people do not have a safe place to sleep at night, addressing other problems they are facing is not impossible, but it is certainly going to be hard.”

A few years later, Cynthia was elected to the Santa Cruz City Council, serving as Mayor in 2017. As Mayor, her focus continued to be on the crisis of homelessness and housing in our community and she became involved with Housing Matters.

“While I was serving as Mayor of Santa Cruz, Claudia and Phil reached out to me as a potential board member who could provide a strategic, political perspective about homelessness and housing. I was able to contribute to the conversation and provide political and strategic thinking around how to better support folks who are unstably housed or unhoused in Santa Cruz and Housing Matters was already working so hard on this issue. It was just really good timing for all of us.

“Homelessness and housing are one of, if not the most critical issue happening across the nation and in Santa Cruz specifically. So it was clear that this was, and still is, where the community is in desperate need of help and our partnership was a natural fit.”

Cynthia had been the Director of the non-profit Gemma, at this point and knew a lot about the scrappy nature of running a nonprofit. But, something surprised her when she explored a partnership with Housing Matters.

“I came into my initial meetings with Phil and Claudia having run a nonprofit and having worked on the issue of homelessness in various ways throughout my career. So, I had questions. I wanted to hear about the board structure, the data, their business structure. To my surprise, they had succinct and clear answers to every single question I had. I soon realized how professional their approach was to the work that was being done and I was, and continue to be, very impressed by that.

“They were constantly searching for ways to improve their programs, establish better relationships with the County and City government, improve their reach and maximize fundraising efforts and donor engagement. On top of that, they were constantly searching for ways to improve internally and assist their staff to grow and improve.

“This was just really impressive to me. It was rare to see this kind of approach to running a nonprofit. Nonprofits are usually quite scrappy and do their best to find resources wherever they can. But Housing Matters was different, they’ve really figured it out.”

Historically, there has been a disconnect between many players in the county to address the issues surrounding homelessness. The shift from mistrust to collaboration and focus was a shift that Cynthia looks back on with great pride.

“My proudest moment while being on the board, hands down, was when there was a clear shift in the relationship and the credibility of Housing Matters in the County and the City of Santa Cruz.

“When I started to see and hear more about Housing Matters in the community, they were referred to as the experts in their field. It wasn’t about confusion or mistrust anymore, which definitely existed and continues to exist to some extent. But slowly, the County and City began to realize that Housing Matters is the respected, trusted, credible partner in solutions to homelessness in our county. They’re not seamless and they’re not without challenges because this work is complicated. But now there is no need to convince. It is known and accepted that Housing Matters is the leading expert in Santa Cruz County on homelessness and solutions to homelessness.

“So, any contribution I get to make to that I am super proud of and grateful for.

“At the end of the day, our work is all about housing people, getting people housed and keeping them housed. Once [everyone] came together … things really started to happen. The county now is taking a more collaborative approach than ever to address how we get our most vulnerable community members housed. We are making real progress and that is huge.”

This story was collected in January of 2021 by Andrea Feltz, Community Engagement Manager