Life after homelessness: Stephen Nelson to be honored at Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation

UCSC Tony Hill Award honors Santa Cruz County residents who exemplify the life and work of the prominent activist

Stephen Nelson
Stephen Nelson is being honored for his leadership skills and sense of compassion. "His focus has always been on demonstrating to the community that many homeless individuals are contributing volunteers -- and thereby helping to break the stereotypes about homeless people that exist in our community," noted Santa Cruz City Councilmember Don Lane. (Photos by Carolyn Lagatutta)
Stephen Nelson with Johnny Gonzalez
Nelson greets his friend and co-worker Johnny Gonzales, team leader of the volunteer crew at the Homeless Services Center. "I think he's the greatest boss I've ever met," says Gonzales, who has been homeless for 30 years. 
UCSC's Tony Hill Memorial Award honors and sustains the legacy of the prominent community activist who died in 2007.

Stephen Nelson is not tall or imposing, but he's impossible to miss as he walks through the Homeless Services Center outside downtown Santa Cruz.

He's five foot seven, 140 pounds, but Nelson, the center's community service coordinator, looks larger than life. It might be the silver hoop earrings, knit cap, and DayGlo orange vest with five pens in one pocket. Nelson can't walk 10 paces without someone waylaying him.

"I know 99.999.1 percent of all these people by name," said Nelson, who walks with a bounce, and varies his speech pattern for dramatic effect—speaking so fast, you must concentrate on the words, or so softly, you have to lean forward.

"Hey, Twin!" he shouts to a passerby. "That's one of two brothers, both here, both homeless. They were estranged. Now they're getting along again."

Nelson is something of a legend at the services center because of his work as a peer mentor and counselor, clean-up crew leader, night watchman, and organizer.

Now the word is out. Nelson has been named this year's winner of the 5th annual UCSC Tony Hill Award, which honors Santa Cruz County residents who exemplify the work of activist Tony Hill, who died of a heart attack in 2007.  

This award honors individuals developing innovative approaches to solving social problems. Nelson will be recognized at UC Santa Cruz's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation on February 6. The award will allow Nelson to designate a $500 donation to the organization of his choice.

There is always so much to be done, Nelson said, but receiving the award "makes me feel like I'm doing what I am supposed to be doing.”

A life of service

Nelson, at 58, seems tireless. He and his team of homeless volunteers have logged an estimated 20,000 service hours in Santa Cruz. They've worked with the Museum of Art and History to tidy up the once-weedy Evergreen Cemetery and clean part of the San Lorenzo River levee in partnership with the conservation group Save Our Shores. Nelson helps put on the community's free Thanksgiving meal and Project Homeless Connect, and created the Healing Circle, a group that offers comfort and support to homeless participants.

"Stephen displays volcanic energy combined with face-to-face warmth," wrote Megan Carlson, the Homeless Services Center's community outreach manager, in her letter recommending him from the award.

Nelson is also a minister who was ordained 28 years ago at a non-denominational church in Detroit and is associated with the Potter's Hand Ministry Center in Santa Cruz County.

His past substance abuse and homelessness give him unusual credibility and empathy at the services center. He started out as a homeless client at the center in 2003 before becoming a volunteer and a paid staff member.  "I can assure them that there is life after homelessless, and hope can be revealed," he said.

Nelson's message is potent for those who struggle with homelessness and addiction.

"I don't lie to people who are trying to make the changes," he said. "I tell them sometimes it is going to hurt like hell. But hell could be no greater than the hell they are in now. "

One of his letters of recommendation came from a Santa Cruzan who wound up homeless three years ago, an experience that left her emotionally and spiritually drained.

“As my mentor and friend, he has been a lifesaver,” she wrote. “He has demonstrated that there is no ‘us and them, staff and participant, male and female’ when it comes to respecting others.”

With Nelson’s encouragement, she returned to college to complete her psychology degree “to help others regain their mental and emotional well-being.”

Reversing the tailspin

Nelson was once a staff member at a dual diagnosis center in Michigan. Then he lost his marriage and left his job, he said. Homeless for the first time in Detroit more than 30 years ago, he entered a tailspin.

"It was about the bad choices I made. When I went into it, I thought of it as recreation, but it destroyed everything I had built."

Nelson talked about the “awakening” that took place after he moved out to Santa Rosa, and found himself alone at a park at 2:30 a.m.

“It dawned on me that my life was a shambles and I had to fix it, so I called the Salvation Army.” The mission helped him stop the drinking and the substance abuse.

"I was done,” Nelson said. “I stayed there three weeks. I am a hardheaded guy so I did it cold turkey.  I never gave up hope. I never thought my savior had forsaken me. When I sought help, it didn't make me feel short, nor did it make me feel tall. For once in my life, I just felt necessary."

The next step was putting his philosophy into practice by helping others.  These days, Nelson tries not to get too overwhelmed by the tasks at hand.

 “Every day I wake up and start work here, I don't go into this like I am going to fix homelessness,” he said. “I just go into this hoping and praying on a spiritual level that they can help themselves." 

The Tony Hill Award selection committee is also honoring Don Rothman, a leading voice for writers and writing during a distinguished 39-year career at UC Santa Cruz. Rothman, who died in November at his Santa Cruz home, is being given posthumous recognition.