When Linda arrived in Santa Cruz in Spring 2023, her life had taken a turn she never expected. The apartment she had in northern California was riddled with toxic black mold. Her landlord refused to remediate the mold, despite its caustic effect on her health. She began experiencing vertigo, and eventually had a stroke and a fall that broke her back.
To fully recover, she knew she couldn’t stay in the apartment. Despite her vigorous cleaning attempts, the mold was spreading to her furniture and clothes. She made the tough choice to leave all of her things behind, holding on to only her car a few belongings.
Around the same time, her son was in Santa Cruz receiving treatment for substance issues. Despite how overwhelming her situation was, she had clarity about next steps. “I knew my son needed my support. I was willing to go through anything,” she reflected. She packed the few belongings she had and came to Santa Cruz, content to sleep in her car if needed.
Initially, she came in confident. “I’ve been a camper all my life,” she remembers thinking. She quickly found the adjustment more difficult than expected. Her recent lumbar break caused nerve damage, and the stroke had slowed her cognitive processing.
One of the most difficult experiences was the powerlessness she felt. Before retiring, Linda was an accomplished, well educated professional. She spent years overseeing social work programs in Minnesota and neighboring states, focusing on training to prevent sexual misconduct in the workplace. The advocacy group she worked for was so effective, they were featured in the 2005 film North Country.
“I had the power in my career to get everyone together. I was able to coordinate the team. Say here’s the problem.” Experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz felt like the opposite. She remembers thinking, “Who am I anymore?” What she wanted most from locals was empathy, not just for her, but for all of our unhoused neighbors. “In the process you need to see yourself too. That makes hard hearts soften.”
As she struggled to regain not just housing, but her sense of confidence and belonging, she joined AFC’s Safe Spaces program. While the program didn’t instantly solve her problems, it gave her a sense of stability and safety. She gives much of the credit to Victoria Verdugo, Safe Space’s Case Manager. “If I hadn’t seen Victoria every week, I would’ve failed completely,” she reflected through tears. “Victoria could handle my emotions…There was a sense of respect and communication. It was all wonderful.”
With the support of Victoria and other local agencies, Linda began her housing search. She came to town with a Section 8 voucher, which would subsidize her rent, but the housing search was daunting. She woke up every day and immediately checked every rental listing she could find, sending Victoria the ones she found promising.
Even with Victoria’s support, the ups and downs of her housing search began to take their toll. She was growing frustrated and tired. “I woke up one morning desperate, and prayed to God for mercy.” Despite the fatigue, she checked the rental listings that morning, and came across a small unit in the redwoods. At first, it didn’t seem like a good fit, so she moved on in her search. Over the next few days, she continued to get notifications for the listing, and eventually felt like she should check it out.
She remembers arriving to the showing. “I got out of the car, and thought ‘wow!’” The setting was beautiful, and the landlords were kind and accommodating. While the unit wasn’t perfect, she felt like it was the right one for her. The landlords accepted her application, and she began the process of moving in.
Fortunately, a program through Santa Cruz County bought her new furniture and home supplies, replacing what she lost to the toxic mold. As of late October, she’s settling in well to her new place. Most importantly to her, her son has completed treatment, secured work and housing and is doing well. “Seeing my son come to life again,” she reflected, “that was worth everything I went through.”
Randy always had a creative side. As the son of a university professor in Los Altos, he was exposed to arts and culture from an early age. Over time, a passion for music began to emerge, and he started working as a touring musician, collaborating with artists who would go on to write for big name pop stars. Music became his life, and he poured everything into it. He found belonging and identity in his community of like-minded musicians.
While he was thriving in this environment, his life eventually derailed because of substance abuse. With time, he began taking his recovery seriously, and started rebuilding his life. Along the way he met his partner Sophie, who was also in recovery. They anchored one another, strengthening their sobriety.
Randy’s world fell apart again when Sophie tragically died. It sent him into both emotional and economic turmoil. He reflected on the time recently. “I had trouble figuring out who I was. I had to figure that out while in crisis, with unstable housing.” He hit rock bottom when he ran out of resources and found himself sleeping outside. He vividly remembers his second night on the street, when a torrential storm hit. He described it as “absolutely traumatic.”
This trauma led him to seek out local shelters, which led him to AFC. While things didn’t turn around overnight, he was able to stabilize. He connected with several of AFC’s volunteer cooks, some of whom he is still keeps up with. “AFC was a God given thing. It turned the most hellaciously terrible experience into something meaningful,” Randy said.
Part of that meaning came through an unexpected avenue: the pandemic lockdown. Randy sheltered in place at the United Methodist Church of Santa Cruz. The church generously offered their space, even creating an art room. This room turned out to be a safe haven for him. Even though he had never painted before, he spent hours in the room putting his emotions and dreams onto canvas. It reignited his creative passion. “Once I started, that’s all I did,” he remembers.
He soon found his favorite subject to paint: his dreams. He had often reflected on his dreams, but putting them in to images was transformational. Even though the images were often abstract, they reflected profoundly personal experiences for him. One of the most personal was a dream he had about Sophie, his late partner. In the dream, she comforts him with words he can’t forget, “I know how it all ends up. You’re going to love it.”
Finding creative momentum led to momentum in other areas of his life, including his housing search. He began putting his name on every affordable housing waitlist he could find. With time, his hard work paid off, and he was offered a small affordable studio with just enough room to paint.
Randy had a particularly meaningful milestone this past winter when he had his first art exhibit. The show took place on a First Friday at London Nelson Community Center. Hundreds of people passed through, taking in Randy’s works and hearing the stories behind them. He even sold his first painting. More than the money it brought in, the experience brought Randy a sense of pride and gratitude, putting his journey into perspective. “Doing this art exhibit was such an accomplishment,” he said. “It symbolized turning such a terrible experience into something positive. It made the world a little bit of a better place.”
A few of Randy's works displayed at his show at London Nelson.
AFC is excited to welcome two new Program Managers. Cristina Gomez-Hernandez (pictured on the left) is now overseeing our Safe Spaces parking program. She comes to the position with over a decade of social services experience, managing family based programs in San Benito County. The transition comes as Fr. Joseph Jacobs, previous Safe Spaces Manager, retires (Congratulations Fr. Joseph!).
Courtney Barrett (pictured on the right) is taking over managing the Faith Community Shelter. Courtney comes with over a decade of experience working in substance rehab, having overseen large residential programs. She is moving into the role as Sam Altis. previous FCS Manager, moves into AFC’s Executive Director position.
Need to reach Courtney or Cristina? You can email them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meet Sandy, a longtime Santa Cruz resident who is 62 years old, and who became unhoused when her mom was moved into senior housing. Sandy has been living in her car on and off for over 10 years. She adopted a female rescue dog named “Missing” as an emotional support animal and companion. The two of them have been enrolled in SafeSpaces for over three years. During the “Rapid Rehousing Wave” and pandemic, Sandy did not qualify for an emergency housing voucher. She has been on the Section 8 voucher waitlist for 10 years. Her ageing motor vehicle developed problems that were too costly to repair, and the AFC SafeSpaces host site embraced her as their own.
Earlier this month something unexpected and wonderful happened. At another AFC member church, during a Sunday service homily, the preacher mentioned all the different ways we can help those who are unhoused. One of the examples they gave was of someone donating their RV to an unhoused person. A woman from the congregation named Rose was listening in on Zoom. She said “Suddenly it was like a light bulb went off over my head!” She reached out to the preacher and said she had an RV she would like to donate. The preacher emailed me (Fr. Joseph) from SafeSpaces, inquiring if we could make use of such a gift. I said “You bet!” I immediately thought of Sandy.
The next day, in the rain, I was driving Sandy to meet Rose at her RV. I helped the two of them sign over the title from Rose to Sandy. This was such a lovely, grace filled moment. Sandy was speechless with tears of joy. “Now I can have my granddaughter over and we can color and do projects on this table, in my home! And Missing can lay
on the bed! And I have a stove, and refrigerator, and a heater!” Grace upon grace, indeed. Later Sandy said “My life could not be any better right now, I am so grateful to you and Rose. I have a major upgrade in my life because of
AFC and my family is super happy also.”
As you’re reading this, maybe you know of someone (possibly yourself!) who has a motor vehicle in good condition that they’re not using. You might consider giving someone in our programs a “major upgrade” in their life. Rose was relieved not to have to worry about the low-mileage RV she was no longer using, paying to store it. She said “I feel like a huge weight has been lifted.” And she made two new friends: Sandy and Missing.
Thank you, Rose!
Join us for dinner, drinks, and fun as we celebrate and support AFC's housing programs!
The evening will include:
For reservation information, please contact Judy Hutchison at email@example.com. Wondering what to wear? Have some fun – Dress up!
Keep an eye out for an invitation in the mail, or register at the link below.
AFC is joining the March to End Homelessness, organized by Housing Matters. AFC Board Member Jon Showalter took the time to share why the march is so important:
Housing Matters is leading a march on April 1st to bring awareness to those living with homelessness and demonstrate that many, many in our county support having the shelters, support and housing necessary to bring all our unhoused neighbors into a life with dignity as God intended.
All too often the debate is captured by those who repel in fear to the unsettling images of those that live outside in abject poverty, mental illness or addiction. In anger, they insist the failing is the victim's and the solution is to send them anywhere else on God's green earth than stay in the town most of them have called home for years.
The AFC is a sponsor of this march and would be most pleased if you would join us. This Saturday at 9:30 we gather at Calvary Church (please, don’t park at the church) and walk the block over to the march. Join us. Show that Santa Cruz cares about the least of us.
Attached is a link to more detail information about the march. A thousand people on the street does help change the political debate.
AFC Board Member
A benefit concert for The Association of Faith Communities (AFC), a local 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to alleviating human suffering.
The United Methodist Church of Santa Cruz is hosting a benefit concert for AFC - The Association of Faith Communities - in the First Annual Concert To End Homelessness. AFC are now in their 10th year as a local Santa Cruz nonprofit serving the unhoused, through their Faith Community Shelter program, SafeSpaces Parking program, and Shower Trailer program. Concert doors open at 6:30PM, show starts at 7:00PM and goes 'til 9:00PM, with one 20 minute intermission (with refreshments). Local musicians and singer-songwriters are donating their talents, featuring Jazz the Dog, Joe Chaplain, Madrigal & Strange, Colin Hannon, Nick Royal, Linc Russin + Special Guests! Tickets are $25 in advance, $35 at the door. Mask optional. All donations including ticket purchases are 100% tax-deductible.
Jeannie came to Santa Cruz 30 years ago to study sculpture. Like many locals, she lived the artist lifestyle. She worked as a potter, a farmer and started her own jam business, living on local farms and in art studios along the way. Her jam business grew a loyal base of customers and kept her committed to the area. “Santa Cruz is one of the best places in the world to be a jam maker,” Jeannie noted. Even with the business growing, housing became increasingly tough to find. Eventually, she began living in her car, and when that became too tough, she joined the Faith Community Shelter in early 2020.
From there, she rode out pandemic in the safety of the shelter, making jam when she could. As vaccines rolled out, her partner Eric decided to move from Colorado in hopes of helping Jeannie find stable housing. He remembers his plan well. “Come out. Get a job, and get Jeannie out of the shelter. I had to get her out, and I couldn’t do it from Colorado.” He quickly found work and support through the Homeless Garden Project and began saving for their future.
About that same time, the couple was awarded a housing voucher, which would allow them to rent an apartment and pay only 30% of their income. The couple, and AFC staff, began scouring rental listings. Their housing search was long, and often filled with disappointment, until one day last summer. A landlord who had a good experience with another AFC participant called shelter staff to say he had another rental available, and he'd love to rent to another shelter member.
Jeannie and Eric toured the quaint duplex in the redwoods, loved it, and were approved on the spot. Within a couple of weeks, they were moved in, and Jeannie was cooking gourmet meals and making jam.
While the couple’s stay at the shelter wasn’t perfect – moving everyday can be hard – one of the most impactful experiences was the hospitality of FCS volunteers. “The people were so generous. We at like kings and queens,” Eric reflected.
Jeannie summed up their journey well. “I still look at Eric and say we get to go home!...It’s like a miracle. I can’t believe it’s actually happening!”
Want to try Jeannie’s Jams? Visit her site: http://www.jeanniesjams.com/.
Last May, we celebrated our 10th Anniversary. We took the time to look back at all we have accomplished. Each number is a story and, boy, there are a lot of stories. Here are the numbers.
Safe Spaces Program
Faith Community Shelter
Mobile Shower Trailer
Our unhoused neighbors each have a story, as we all do, and those stories often don't fit the stereotypes in our heads. Chris K. has been in Santa Cruz for 50 years. He needed a break to get back on his feet, and he got it through SafeSpaces. Chris is a working writer and published author. He has been unhoused here since 2015. He came to AFC SafeSpaces in June, 2021. This interview with Chris was conducted by Fr. Joseph Jacobs, Program Manager for AFC SafesSpaces, at the Rodeway Inn IQV Hotel, a program that recently shut down.
Q: How long have you been unhoused in Santa Cruz County?
A: For about 7 years; prior to that I had a place in LaSelva Beach for about a year, I had to move out quickly, it wasn’t safe. That’s when I started staying in my vehicle. For a while I used to find short term rentals easily. Before AirBnB, I’d rent a place for 1-3 months at a time, in between staying in my car. I just kind of “gypsied about” and found places I could furtively park my van, sleep, and leave during the day. I’m a pretty busy person, working, so I don’t hang about during the day.
Q: Where were you born?
A: Southern California.
Q: How long have you been in Santa Cruz County?
A: Since 1971, but for two years I lived in Mill Valley, while I wrote my first novel.
Q: How did you hear about SafeSpaces?
A: I think I found you on the internet. I had read about it in the newspaper, looked it up and called you. You got me into SafeSpaces at a church in Aptos. And then after that you got me in here [Rodeway Inn IQV Hotel program] really fast. It was a blessing. It was hard living in my van. I’ll say this much. I don’t think I would have survived a whole lot longer, and I really mean that, if it wasn’t for you and AFC. I was just exhausted, my foot was really wrecked [from a bad injury], it was hard to get around, it really wears you down. I still had some income from my writing, but it wasn’t enough to afford a place to rent and make ends meet, to pay my credit card bills every month. I was really losing energy fast and winding down. So, it was a blessing that it all showed up when it did. I don’t think I would have survived much longer.
Q: Yes, I made the referral for you to the IQV hotel program, and they took you right away.
A: Yes, that was amazing! I didn’t expect that. They’ve been great, I can’t say enough good about the staff here, they’ve all been superb. They’re very friendly. Colleen, the social worker who was working with me on the Section 8 voucher, she’s fantastic, wonderful, couldn’t ask for better.
Q: So long have you been here at the hotel?
A: Since the end of July, 2021.
Q: After you were here, how long before they took your application for Section 8?
A: Within a month, I had to get stuff, a copy of my birth certificate, bank statements, I finally got it all together and submitted it in January, then the Housing Authority interviewed me in February and then they called me and said “OK, you qualify, your packet will come in the mail.”
Q: Yes, we’ve found that the whole thing is pretty quick, once the application is submitted with all the documentation, they turn in around quickly.
A: I’m going to find a place in Watsonville as soon as possible. I don’t want to go back to my car. Now that I’ve been inside with a roof over my head for six months it would be really hard to go back to that. With ankylosing spondylitis [a form of inflammatory arthritis] you have to do a lot of physical activity, and I’ve been really disciplined about that. Every day I do three hours of physical therapy exercises, including walking barefoot for 30 minutes in moderately soft sand. It’s very therapeutic, so I want to keep fairly close to beach access for that.
Q: So, you finished your second novel while you’ve been here?
A: Yes, I finished the second draft while I was here, I got right to it, and I’m just doing final editing now. It was a big gift to be able to finish it here.
Q: Any final words about AFC and SafeSpaces?
A: I just think it’s a fantastic program, I’m so grateful to you guys. It’s a life saver, a Godsend. I think all the people that have anything to do with it have all been really great, and that makes a big difference. There’s no attitude of condescension, just all really good people, and they’re good to you. Thank God they came up with this program. It sure pulled me out of the rapids!