Robert Steffen, the man without his pink. Photo by Rosario Serna.
Robert Steffen, the man without his pink. Photo by Rosario Serna.
Photo by Rachel Edelstein.
Photo by Rachel Edelstein.

One reporter’s search for the real story behind a fabled Santa Cruz icon

You’d hardly know him.

He wears a tan floppy hat, thin wire glasses, an ordinary grey sweatshirt with an Easter yellow collar peeking though, faded jeans, and dirty grey shoes. The pink plastic flowers adorning his feet are the only visible clues to his identity.

The hunt for Robert Steffen, one of Pacific Avenue’s unique and regular characters, was no simple task. It took three days and the entrusting of a personal phone number with a homeless man. But when Steffen finally returned the call, there was certain excitement and urgency in his voice.

More commonly known as “The Pink Umbrella Man” or simply “The Pink Man,” Steffen has abandoned his family life as a NASA electrical engineer only to wind up a homeless Santa Cruzan spending his days shuffling endlessly around, and left, ultimately, alone.

For four years Steffen could be found, almost daily, slowly cruising Pacific Avenue dressed from head to toe in pink: pink hat, pink makeup, pink shawl, pink skirt, pink leg warmers, pink umbrella.

During his oh-so-slow downtown saunters, Steffen was usually silent, smiling, giving the occasional nod to passersby. Even amid the eclectic eccentricity of Santa Cruz, Steffen’s vibrant face paint and clothes made him an especially memorable element of the city. So when Steffen abruptly disappeared from the avenue in February, many concerned locals were left wondering where the Pink Man had gone.

Emerging from his mysterious disappearance, over hot chocolate and a sweet muffin from Lulu’s at the Octagon, Steffen spoke about his life for the first time in 13 years. Timidly, and at times between tears, Steffen discussed years of severe depression, years of non-verbal communication, and his family, whom he had not seen in 14 years.

“I don’t know why I just started talking to people and socializing when I haven’t been for so long,” Steffen said of recently hanging up his pink apparel. “Maybe I grew out of [the depression]. Maybe it was a phase I was going through. Maybe I just needed time alone to think about things.”

In February, prior to his Pink Man “retirement” Steffen was evicted from his room at the Palomar Inn, a local low-income housing facility. He was sent to Dominican Hospital for observation and upon his release he found himself in a transition house. When the house shut down, he was scooted to a homeless shelter and, eventually, to his current abode in a home with an elderly woman.

Frequent moving is nothing new to Steffen. He was born in Las Vegas, Nevada and earned a degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. From there, Steffen began working at the Ames Research Center, a branch of NASA located in nearby Sunnyvale. Five years into the job, however, he decided that electrical engineering wasn’t for him.

After moving to a couple other cities and holding a number of different jobs, Steffen found himself stranded in Santa Cruz. On a bench outside of Bunny’s Shoes, Steffen penned his first “Have a good day” sign, which he displayed to passerby from under a black garbage bag. Around the same time, Steffen also made a feeble bid for President on a pro-animal testing platform.

Eventually the Homeless Persons Health Project (HPHP), a program that helps homeless people find and pay for housing, took Steffen under their wing. Starting in 2004 with help from the HPHP, Steffen secured money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which allowed him to pay rent at the Palomar Inn.

Soon after, he adopted his pink persona.

The Pink Pariah

Steffen says that his invention and portrayal of the Pink Man character served as a way to cope with his particular mental illness- depression. The character allowed him to be around people, something he says he loves, but he did not have to speak.

“I wanted to do something fun to lift up my spirits and lift the spirits of the people around me,” Steffen explained. “I think lifting the spirits is kind of the opposite of depression, and so, yeah, you can call it a coping method. I was fighting depression by being silly. You know, by being ‘The Pink Man,’ or whatever.”

The creation of his alter ego didn’t go unnoticed, or unappreciated, by the Santa Cruz community.

Kelsey LeBlanc, a sales associate at Pacific Avenue’s Camouflage clothing store, views Steffen as bringing a unique element to Santa Cruz culture.

“I think he adds a lot of charm to the place. I consider him a mascot of Pacific Avenue and Santa Cruz in general,” LeBlanc said. “I think he’s completely harmless. His meditative walk that he did up and down Pacific, his big smile and this theory that he was spreading ‘pink.’ I thought it was fabulous.”

Despite wide recognition in the community, however, many locals ­­­­– particularly those who own or run businesses on Pacific Avenue – have expressed concern and even distaste over Steffen’s longtime downtown presence.

Amanda Vanderhoff, sales clerk at Bunny’s Shoes says that she once saw Steffen harassing a blind man in the rain by standing so encroachingly close to the man that a pedestrian had to come and help the blind man when Steffen would not move.

“It was really irritating,” Vanderhoff said. “He would just instigate people all the time. I think he likes to really bother people. It’s really creepy. All the girls here, everybody keeps away from him.”

Loved or loathed, Steffen has undoubtedly roused interest. Countless Flickr accounts, Myspace pages and Urban Dictionary entrees are dedicated to his pink persona. On Facebook, The Pink Man has nearly 4,000 fans and a page entitled “I’ve shared an awkward moment with the Pink Umbrella Man,” created by fourth-year music major Max Rubel. It currently boasts 1,869 members.

“I think everybody definitely has the experience of trying to walk past him and not being able to or standing in line at the movie theater and having him walk by really slowly and not knowing how to react,” Rubel said. “People are just naturally uncomfortable in public anyway and adding that other dimension of awkwardness incites strong reactions.”

The page created by Rubel features discussions boards about the fashion, legends and interactions surrounding The Pink Man. One false rumor that was continually debated on the site claimed Steffen was a registered sex offender after someone found a Megan’s Law listing for a Robert Russell Steffen from Roseville, California. While Steffen shares a first and last name with the man listed, his middle name and appearance are divergent.

Steffen’s mental illness has also fueled many local rumors and discussions.

“He seemed very much in his own world [so] I didn’t know whether I should be worried because of that or admire that,” Rubel said of his first encounters with The Pink Man. “I feel like that conflict is really a big thing…especially [with all] the personalities of Santa Cruz. You never know whether you should admire them or be worried or just not have an opinion at all and mind your own business.”

Veronica Tonay, a local psychologist with a private practice specializing in depression, teaches a UCSC course entitled “Community Mental Health,” which informs students about the implications of attaching negative stigmas to the mentally ill.

“There’s a lot of fear about mental illness because these days we’re living by the god of rationality,” Tonay said. “There’s kind of a primitive sense we have that if we see someone like [The Pink Man] and we get too close we’re going to catch it — ­­which of course is never going to happen — or that we’re going to get hurt by somebody who’s homeless or mentally ill.”

Steffen says he made several attempts to seek treatment, but consistently felt like he was facing a brick wall.

“I did see some different psychologists – mainly one funded by the county – and I didn’t like them. All they seemed to want to do is tell me that I shouldn’t be wearing pink or shouldn’t be walking slowly and that what I was doing was wrong,” Steffen said, a hint of indignation in his voice. “[The psychologists] prescribed me tons of medicines and stuff like that, which didn’t do much for my cognitive abilities at that time. They were very unhelpful, I would say, in general.”

Tonay believes that Steffen’s decision to cope with his illness through the Pink Man persona was definitely a positive one.

“The best thing a person can do who is depressed and on their own, besides trying to get help, is to do something creative,” Tonay said. “He developed a whole persona for himself which is the antithesis of depression. He dressed in pink and he smiles and he found a way to be out with people everyday, all day long, and to be less isolated in the sense that people will say hello to him and have conversations with him and so forth.”

Fading Colors

While the Pink Man persona may have helped Steffen cope with life as a mentally ill individual in some ways, it interfered with his life in other ways – namely when it came to his living conditions.

Due to a paint-related hazard present in his room at the Palomar Inn during an annual HUD inspection, Steffen lost his housing subsidy at the beginning of the year.

On the morning of Feb. 18, Palomar Inn assistant manager Fred Erd was ready to begin clearing out Steffen’s room in anticipation of his approaching eviction.

When Erd opened room 503 he paused.

The floor was nonexistent, indiscernible. Trash bags filled to bursting point blocked off the closet and the bathroom. Shelves of canned food and cereal covered an entire wall and wires crisscrossed, like booby traps, across the ground.

After packing up his belongings into black garbage bags, Steffen was escorted out of his room in handcuffs.

Following the eviction, Steffen was taken to Dominican Hospital under Section 5150 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, which states that a qualified officer or clinician may involuntarily confine a person who is considered to be a danger to him or herself or to others.

“They were rather forceful and not too kind at all and they put handcuffs on me and all that stuff,” Steffen said, eyes subverted, of the situation. “I believe the excuse was that since I wasn’t looking for a place outside of the Palomar to live, that I might be somehow a danger to myself or others. I don’t understand that statement, but that was their excuse.”

Following his release from Dominican, Steffen sought to put his life back together, but immediately faced speed bumps. His mail was left undelivered due to a Palomar Inn policy not to accept mail for evicted former tenants. As a result, Steffen never received the HUD reapplication packet necessary to secure housing subsidies and therefore found himself, once again, homeless.

Distraught and angered by the situation, Steffen spent many days pacing and protesting outside the Palomar Inn. He says that he also attempted to contact local papers to publicize the issue, but believes that his pleas fell on deaf ears.

Asked to comment on his former resident, Erd was reserved, saying only that there were a few instances in which police were called when Steffen refused to allow Palomar management into his room, but that the facility and its staff remain supportive of their former resident in his continued efforts for betterment.

“In addition to [the] fear that keeps people from trying to treat a homeless person like you’d treat anyone else is pain. It’s painful to come face to face with a homeless person and say to yourself, ‘Oh my god, this person is living like this and I’m not,’” Tonay explained. “It is certainly much easier to say, ‘This person deserves it. This person wants to be like this. This is someone else’s problem.’ But in the long run it costs all of us when we do that.”

Redefining His “Pink”

In April, Steffen set up a P.O. Box, where all of his letters, packages and necessary documents are now delivered. On April 29th he saw his mother and older sister again for the first time in 14 years and he says that he plans to visit with them more often now.

While Steffen’s intent search for a job has yet to result in anything, he says he has enjoyed cleaning up around the house, chatting and running errands with the elderly woman in whose home he currently resides.

While things appear to be turning around for Steffen, many of the problems he has faced are common for the more than 3.5 million homeless people estimated to be living in the U.S., according to a study done by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in 2007. In addition, more than one-fifth of these homeless individuals suffer from some form of severe and persistent mental illness, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Psychologist Tonay said that while she sees the current system of treatment and assistance for the homeless and mentally ill as “dreadful, shameful, and tremendously overburdened,” there are many ways that people can help.

“Just treating a person who doesn’t look the same as you or who’s having a really hard time like they’re an actual human being is a tremendously healing thing to do. [Even] the average person has something to give — whether it’s volunteering at the homeless resource center or any of the many agencies we have in town to help homeless people,” Tonay said. “I think there’s a lot of caring among the population for people who are less fortunate.”

As for whether or not Santa Cruz will soon – or ever—see the return of its most prominent pink character, only time will tell.

“I don’t know what I’ll do in the future. I enjoy working with nice people and I hope to do more things along that line,” Steffen said. “But what that is, I don’t know. I have no clue.”