Food Not Bombs founder Keith McHenry passes out hotel vouchers in front of the Santa Cruz Town Clock on March 23.
Courtesy Photo by Alicia Kuhl.

As of March 26 at 3 p.m., there are 32 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Santa Cruz County. 

There are over 1,000 houseless residents in Santa Cruz. Unhoused and unprotected, they are some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19. 

The City of Santa Cruz cleared and fenced off an encampment in front of the downtown Post Office on March 23. Sixteen individuals who lived at the camp were then relocated to a triage center located in Lot 17 in front of the Kaiser Arena where they were then given hotel vouchers for one night. According to Food Not Bombs (FNB) founder Keith McHenry, there were no medical personnel and no food was provided. The triage center then shut down after remaining open for a couple of hours. 

Using FNB donations and money he received from an international activism award, McHenry spent over $25,000 over the course of four days to provide additional shelter to the houseless community through hotel vouchers. 

“These people are my friends,” McHenry said. “I know almost all of the people that are going into these hotels, and I don’t want anybody to die.” 

On the evening of March 23, a crowd of houseless residents who did not receive city-issued vouchers gathered in front of the Santa Cruz Town Clock hoping to receive hotel vouchers from McHenry. A volunteer spray-painted dots on the concrete to guide individuals to maintain a six-foot distance from one another in accordance with social distancing recommendations.

Houseless residents gather in front of the Santa Cruz Town Clock on March 23 hoping to receive a hotel voucher.
Courtesy Photo by Alicia Kuhl.

However, McHenry said people were so desperate for shelter that they ignored the distancing markers and rushed for the vouchers. FNB placed 81 houseless individuals in hotel rooms that night. 

The volunteer that spray-painted the six-foot markers was ticketed by police. 

Chief of Police Andrew Mills tweeted and posted on his blog condemning the gathering of the houseless population in front of the Town Clock and called the distribution of hotel vouchers a “rally.” 

“Mass gatherings such as this cannot continue as it puts all Santa Cruzan’s at risk,” Mills wrote in a March 24 blog post. “According to the CDC, the homeless are very vulnerable and at high risk for COVID 19. Gathering in large groups is reckless, irresponsible, and is a crime we enforce.” 

McHenry paid for hotel rooms for 180 houseless individuals between March 24 and March 25 and is working to secure an additional night for March 26. McHenry handed out the March 24 hotel vouchers in a parking garage, attracting a crowd of over 200. The sick and elderly were given first priority. 

McHenry instructed individuals to practice social distancing while waiting in the garage. He said the majority of attendees complied, except about three individuals. 

An officer from the Santa Cruz chapter of the California Homeless Union resides in each hotel where houseless residents are placed, ensuring rules are followed. 

“This is life, and death and desperation,” McHenry said. “For Andy Mills to portray it as a rally is an outrageous lie.”