Tom Gill is a member of Housing Matters’ Board of Directors and brings his background as a Silicon Valley executive to his role as Board Treasurer. He has brought an invaluable perspective to our Board of Directors.
We sat down with Tom to discuss his experience working to solve homelessness in Santa Cruz County. His perspective resembles one of constant curiosity about the issue, and his learnings are thought-provoking no matter where you are on your journey to learning about homelessness in our community.
There are many causes you could dedicate your energy to. Why homelessness?
There is one story that really motivates me, and I have a hard time telling it without getting emotional.
My son was a successful distance runner growing up and he ran with a young man named James who we would take to track and cross country invitationals. Fast forward, after James completed high school, I began seeing him on the street. It really tore me up, you know? I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness, the people I see on the streets are someone’s track buddy, someone’s son.”
Some time passed and I actually ran into him while I was on Housing Matters’ campus, which I was so happy to see. I learned he was working to get housing. Catching up with him was so wonderful, I was so happy to see he was getting the help he needed. A few months later, COVID-19 hit and everyone was forced indoors. One afternoon I spotted James running on Pleasure Point. I pulled over and rolled my window down and yelled, “Hey it’s me! You must be housed if you are out and exercising?” and sure enough, he was housed. He replied, “I was in some real trouble there but now I am finally housed. I am really focusing on running and getting healthy!”. And so, I hope that he’ll be able to continue in whatever direction he is going.
Why did you become involved with Housing Matters?
I watched the issue of homelessness for so many years, how can you not? Driving by lines of tents, people on the streets. After 18 years I hit a point where I needed to do something about it. These folks could have been my schoolmate, my teammate, my family members. Just seeing it constantly and knowing that we need people to step up and make a difference was my motivator. I didn’t have a reason why I couldn’t be a part of the solution, so I stepped up.
I used to drive by Housing Matters’ campus every day and wonder how I can help these guys. I noticed that so many of the people that are not housed are my demographic, they are guys my age. I constantly wondered what I could do to help.
Early on, I realized that I probably wouldn’t be the best hands-on, in terms of a caseworker or a volunteer. My background is rooted in business strategy. I was an executive in tech at the time, I was good at making sure the resources were there and that the organization could be successful. That was my strength. So, when I started to think about what I had to offer, I knew that helping on the business side of things is where I could provide the most value.
I later learned about an opportunity to serve on the board of Housing Matters. And so I met with Phil and Claudia and took a tour of campus. By the end of the discussion, without any hesitation, I asked to join the board. I knew I wanted to be involved with the work going on here.
What motivates you as a board member?
What really motivates me is when I get to talk to friends and members of the community about what we do at Housing Matters and about homelessness at large. It has been very impressive to see the level of empathy other community members have.
I am so proud of the work we do at Housing Matters. Initially, I was amazed at the depth of the programs and the number of programs there are available. It is really impressive. There’s a whole life cycle to getting people housed and it doesn’t just happen overnight. So many people are involved in the process and so much support is available. Nevertheless, at Housing Matters we are getting people housed. We are a hundred percent focused on getting people into permanent housing. And I just love that because that is how we solve homelessness, we put people into housing.
What have you learned since joining the board?
I’ve really learned just how divisive this issue is. Close friends of mine will look at me and say, “I don’t want to talk about it. I just want it to go away.” And when I hear that, it motivates me to work even harder because when it comes down to it, that is our goal. Our goal is to make homelessness go away.
I quickly realized that so many people who are housed hold such harsh characterizations of people who are not housed. There is a tendency to stereotype and jump to conclusions about homelessness that motivates me to break these molds and encourage conversations rooted in fact, because the facts are compelling.
It’s really important for board members and members of the community that are interested in this issue to become familiar with the facts and the talking points because they’re compelling. In the beginning, I never knew what to say. I found myself just being quiet, listening. I had to listen for the first several months and just hear it, before I could formulate what my response would be. So learning about homelessness and understanding how to respond is a huge part of joining the movement to solve homelessness.
We are not going to solve homelessness overnight. It’s a drip process and we just have to keep working at it, keep connecting with community members and having these important conversations.
Tom’s journey leading up to and while serving on Housing Matters’ Board of Directors is inspiring. His insights shine a light on the personal journey that so many of us go through in order to join the efforts to solve homelessness in our community today. Want to learn more, like Tom did in the beginning of his journey? Check out the events we are offering, the resources we have compiled, and join the conversation today!
This story was collected in December of 2020 by Andrea Feltz, Community Engagement Manager