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Under Criminal Investigation For Buying Hotel Rooms For The Homeless


DCL 20S – 01888 PR

518 a – extortion induced by wrongful use of force
472 – counterfeit seal
532A – false financial statement
182A – conspiracy to commit a crime
120275 – violation to comply with shelter in place

Santa Cruz, California – The pheromones of fear swept Californians indoors from the chilly mist of March 2020. News of death haunted the media. The streets were silent of all but the unsheltered, police and the hardy volunteers at the Santa Cruz Homeless Union COVID – 19 Relief Center and Food Not Bombs meal.

The CDC announced that every effort should be made to provide hotel rooms to the homeless to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Governor Newsom also announced that the State would provide millions of dollars in funding for what he would call Operation Room Key.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel’s March 19, 2020 article “Santa Cruz coronavirus ‘triage centers’ in the works for city’s unsheltered population” reported that the state would be “setting aside $50 million to convert hotel and motel rooms into quarantine options for those who are infected, plus more than 1,300 trailers statewide for the same use.”

“Newsom said one of his experts’ health models predicted that 56% — some 60,000 — of California’s estimated 108,000 unsheltered residents may contract the coronavirus in the next eight weeks.”

The article goes on to report the City Manager’s program: “The city plans to open as many as seven outdoor city triage centers on an as-needed basis, temporarily housing between 10 to 15 people per site for about as long as 72 hours, O’Hara said.”

Mayor Justin Cummings visited our relief center at the Town Clock that same morning begging Food Not Bombs to help lure the homeless into their triage cages. I refused to cooperate with their demeaning program. With millions of dollars in the pipeline the city could place every unhoused person in a hotel room but the homeless were not worthy of a warm place to lay their heads. Reward them now and people would think it was possible to house everyone.

I was not willing to destroy my reputation by endorsing such a degrading plan. I did let the Mayor know I would be happy to work with the city if they made an effort to provide hotel rooms for those who lived outside.

At about 10 am on March 23, 2020, I visited the Oceana Inn at 525 Ocean St, Santa Cruz and asked to rent 8 rooms for the homeless showing the manager a sample voucher I had designed that morning. They would not agree because the guests would be homeless people.

I crossed the street and spoke with the family managing The Islander Motel. After some back and forth they agreed to rent 8 rooms. I agreed to place an officer of the Santa Cruz Homeless Union in one of the rooms and that if there was any trouble we would remove that person. I gave them my credit card and paid for 8 rooms plus a damage deposit. That included the city’s 11% tax on hotel rooms.

The Motel Santa Cruz was not willing to rent any rooms but I was able to rent rooms at Ocean Gate Inn, Budget Inn Motel, Riverside Inn & Suites and Aqua Breeze Inn. The Aqua Breeze Inn reconsidered.

By lunch time I had paid for about 40 rooms using money I had from the sale of my farmland in New Mexico and an award I had received for my work supporting a vegan diet.

I let the volunteers at the relief center know the homeless union would be issuing hotel vouchers at 6:00 at the Town Clock. We already had social distancing marks of the line to get food and had surrounded the relief center in crates and caution tape to help maintain safety.

A volunteer started to add social distancing marks for the voucher distribution but she was arrested for marking the street so we stopped. News of a warm bed and shower raced through the community. Dozens showed up for a chance at a coveted night indoors. By 5 PM over 100 people had come for the chance to spend the evening in a bed. People were desperate to get a room and it was difficult keeping the crowd from swarming us.

Union officers arched behind me prepared to welcome their hotel mates. Those desperate faces of hope will never leave my memory. It was crushing to announce we had exhausted our vouchers. “If we show the hotels that there won’t be any problems this will help us get another round of rooms tomorrow.”

The next morning Sergeant Jones and his patrol ordered us to shut down the relief center, handing us a letter from Chief Andy Mills who was across the street lording over a sweep of our friends who were camping next to the Post Office.

“Last night, March 23, 2020, you held a rally at the Clock tower, where dozens of people gathered close to one another. Under the current pandemic conditions and order from public health officials at the federal, state and local levels, you must immediately cease and desist from operating in an environment where people are forced to abandon safe social distancing.”

A frosty rain encouraged us to move our next voucher distribution to Garage 10 next to Wells Fargo. Our success the night before made it possible to rent rooms at Pacific Inn Santa Cruz, the Ocean Lodge and the Mission Inn & Suites making the total of 180 beds for the night of March 25th.

I painted about 100 social distancing dots at six foot intervals in the Parking Garage 10 at 24 River Street. The community cooperated with our request and stood on their dot. We passed out 180 vouchers and officers of the union lead their guests to the assigned hotel.

On March 27th Salvation Army employee Jeremy Anthony came to me at the County Building and asked if I could place half of the 60 people at the Laurel Street Shelter into hotels. He said his guests were still sleeping eight inches apart on gym mats.

I drove to the hotels and rented another 125 beds reserving 30 for those crowded into the Laurel Street Shelter. I asked Jeremy if the Salvation Army would be willing to pay for two more weeks but he thought that was impossible and we agreed it would be better to give the rooms to people who couldn’t get into the shelter.

That same day Emergency 911 dispatch called to know if we had more vouchers. A social worker at Dominican Hospital asks if she could place her discharged patient into one of our beds. We are the reality the old system never was.

It’s day four of the great hotel voucher crusade. Thirty-six of our communities proud unhoused stand at six-foot intervals in the wet mud of the Santa Cruz Benchlands. We are operating by the street lights behind the County Court House. Cold drizzle, COVID-19, and the uncertain future drape us in sorrow.

Jake is a refugee of Police Chief Andy Mills’ morning of the lockdown sweep of the Post Office. But even though he lost his shoes in the day-long police action and stands barefoot for our rice and beans he is one of the lucky twelve who the city has placed in a hotel room for a week’s stay.

Sandra clutches our pink plastic clipboard and signs up for a room at the Riverside adding a cursive “God Bless You, Keith” below her signature. We share a smile of relief.

Lauren shivers in a beautiful lacy brown dress. It is her turn for the sacred hotel voucher for that one night at the inn. Tears cascade across her cheeks. She hasn’t bathed in days she whispers and sobs gripping her voucher for dear life with moist eyes of thanks as she joins her hotel mates.

I run out of rooms. My heart breaks as I report the desperate news and hand out blue tarps to the unfortunate. Melissa suggests I ask for their names. Put them first in line for Friday’s warm showers and soft bed and I hope their wish comes true.

A young Venessa finds a seat on the sliver of pavement next to her boyfriend Seth, looks up towards me and tells me not to worry. You did your best, they cheerfully add.

Mark grumbles the truth what everyone on the streets knows. The governor passed out $500 million to place those without housing in California’s hotels. That bought Chief Mills a week for twelve at the Motel Santa Cruz and his half dozen abandoned chain-link cages at the city’s parking lot gulags of triage. Maybe it was a psychological preparation for that final solution to the problem of our town’s useless eaters?

I leave ten of us to the frost.

Nearly three years after those first frightening days the activists at Food Not Bombs were still comforting the unhoused every day. Twenty-five mile an hour winds and shards of rain soaked us on the one thousandth afternoon of providing daily meals, driving us from the Town Clock into the dry cavern of Garage 10. Frantic volunteers grab at a flying red canopy as it snaps into a twisted web of trash while others stuff my car with tables. Father Joel arrived with his donation of survival gear. Local students struggled to save our equipment from the gales.

After we had started setting up in a secluded corner of the garage two bedraggled Santa Cruz police officers arrived to our chaos of relocation, objecting to our safe haven but we ignore their pleas to retreat back into the deadly atmospheric river and by 3:00 pm that afternoon all are fed. I felt so blessed that I was able to peel off my drenched clothing in the warmth of my girlfriend’s home. Those thousands of others forced to live in the storm would not have such luxury.

A crispy sun greeted our Santa Cruz Community Christmas Dinner. City hoisted wreaths gently sway from the Clock Tower on December 25, 2022. Volunteers glow with holiday joy as they spoon out blobs of stuffing, mashed potatoes and slices of ham provided by Veterans for Peace. A friend sits against the empty Light House Bank gate, his sad face reflecting the pain of Christmas separation and family regret. For others we are family.

A second drenching storm crashes against our Pacific coast two days after the holiday festivities. Timbers bounce against the bridges crossing the San Lorenzo River. I will learn that many of my friends had rushed to scale the muddy slopes of the Pogonip to escape the rising torrents.

I get a call that police are swarming the garage area and I see two police officers forcing a cold camper out from under the sheltering overhang at the Wells Fargo ATMs into the drenching sheets of rain.

A secluded area of Garage 10 marked ‘No Parking” is a perfect location for our operation. Friends place our six new folding tables in our daily pattern. Drew strategically places the two remaining garbage cans saved from the winds of December 10th.

Ten or more Santa Cruz Police Officers amble up. Sergeant Denise Cockrum orders us to return to the ravages of the atmospheric river. I let her know we would be out of the garage at 3 and invited her to join us for lunch. It wasn’t long before she clamped on the metal cuffs and had me carted off to the county jail for an eleven hour visit and the promise of an arraignment for two misdemeanors on January 30, 2023

I arrived early to court on the appointed day. I couldn’t find my name on the docket. The window woman at Room 120 sends me to the second floor District Attorney’s office.

“Do I have a case today?” I ask sliding my drivers license into the trough under the plexiglass screen. She investigates her computer listings. “No, but you do have another case from March 2020.”

I ask her if she could print out the information. She can’t but she can write out the charges and this is what she marks down in blue ink and slides back to me with my identification.

22S – 07279 DCL 20S – 01888 518 a – extortion induced by wrongful use of force 472 – counterfeit seal 532A – false financial statement 182A – conspiracy to commit a crime 120275 – violation to comply with shelter in place

The first line 222S-07279 DCL indicates the case of my alleged counterfeit vouchers did not disappear in March 2021 as I thought and more charges were added in 2022.

Why am I under investigation on felony charges and a violation to comply with shelter in place nearly three years after I spent close to $20,000 on hotel rooms for the homeless?

What would we find in the police reports on the great hotel voucher crusade?

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