Mary Lou

I’ve been a social worker all my life. Before I moved to Santa Cruz, I was working with Catholic Charities up in San Francisco where we ran a lot of programs for people experiencing homelessness.

I moved to Santa Cruz in 1990 and began my position as the CEO of United Way. Through this job I knew Housing Matters and always admired the work they were doing. Their professionalism and commitment to staying current with solutions to homelessness was very evident and I had a profound respect for their work.

There are many important subsects of social services and I have worked in many throughout my 45-year career, but homelessness is the one that I’m drawn to most passionately because these people need support so desperately.

When you see a heartbreaking situation of a person who is homeless and living on the streets, it is important to see it as a system failure. These systems may go all the way back through the family tree, an inability to get proper treatment for health issues. It may be any number of things that have contributed to that person ending up there. But whatever got them there, every system has failed them, from our social service system, to our health system all the way to our employment system.

During my time working with United Way, I secured a grant to start the Smart Path program (the coordinated entry system for homeless services currently in place in Santa Cruz County). Housing Matters applied to be the “host” of this program and was a huge player in its implementation county-wide.

When I was getting ready to retire in 2018, I was invited to join Housing Matter’s Board of Directors. I had a strong relationship built with them already and happily accepted this new opportunity.

I approach this work with a big picture view: if all the systems have failed, what can we do to make all the systems work again? That is why being on Housing Matters’ board is such an honor. They come to the issue of homelessness with a clear solution: housing. They still have their shelter programs, of course, but everyone who enters their gates is beginning their journey, in one way or another, to suitable and stable housing.

There is a solution to homelessness, it’s just not an easy one, and we won’t get to it until we all come together to address this issue. Egos, judgements, and blame aside. We must solve it together, as a community because it truly takes a village and that is something that we, as members of the Santa Cruz community, must recognize. It is time to step up to the plate.

Now is the time to get involved. Start engaging in the solutions to homelessness. Volunteer at Housing Matters, offer skills and work with a team that is truly making a difference on this issue in our town. Read a book, engage in a conversation with a family member. Start anywhere, but please start somewhere.

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