Over 50 people gathered in front of Santa Cruz City Hall on April 11 to remember the life of 53-year-old Michael “Mike” Randell Mears, who died of hypothermia on Feb 17. He was found unconscious on Potrero Street with a body temperature of 70 degrees the night he died.
Mears grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and hitchhiked across the country after earning his GED certificate, eventually settling in Santa Cruz. He is survived by seven sisters, a brother and many loving friends, nieces and nephews.
“Mike was a free-spirited person and didn’t like to stay in one place for too long,” sister Jerry LaVonn said in Mears’s obituary. “He had a photographic memory and was very smart.”
Those in attendance spoke of their encounters with Mears, who was houseless and was often found in different parts of the city, including Goodwill and the public library.
Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs and participant in the Freedom Sleepers project, helped plan the memorial and recalls Mears as a joker with a great intellect. McHenry met Mears through his work with the Freedom Sleepers and remembers him fondly, recalling debates they would have about art history or current events.
“There are hundreds of people who live outside and there’s no access to housing for many of them,” McHenry said. “There are many anti-homeless laws which only add to the problem.”
One of these laws is a camping ban, which prohibits people from sleeping outdoors in the city on private or public property unless expressly permitted. An amendment to this law was proposed in March of last year to allow for outdoor sleeping as long as it wasn’t in a tent. However, this amendment was not passed, leaving many houseless individuals unsheltered.
The Freedom Sleepers, a grassroots initiative that aims to repeal the camping ban in Santa Cruz, camp out in front of City Hall every week in protest of this ban.
Many houseless individuals endure cold weather climates and storming rains without the protection of shelter during the winter months. In 2016, 37 houseless individuals died in Santa Cruz County and nearly half of them died outdoors, according to the Homeless Persons Health Project’s report.
“We all need to do better but what does that mean? We are surrounded by a hundred Michaels,” said the director of the Warming Center Brent Adams. “Are we going to take people home? Are we going to bring blankets to people and take a personal interest in them and ask them what they need?”
The Warming Center is a community-run program that opens a heated, safe space to the public when outside temperatures fall to 35 degrees or below, 37 degrees following a day of rain and when there are extreme rain events. The center was open the night Mears died and though he frequented the space, he was not there that night.
“If people want to stop deaths like Michael’s, then supporting places like the Warming Center is critical,” Adams said.
Tony, a community activist and former member of the houseless community who preferred to go only by his first name, met Mears on the streets of downtown Santa Cruz and urges people in the community to get involved.
“For you, if you come down off the hill and you want to help then you’re giving a few minutes, but for these people it’s 24/7, 365 days a year,” Tony said. “If you can give a few sincere moments then that is water in the desert.”