by Steve Pleich
When the doors to the Santa Cruz Veterans Memorial Building on Front Street in Downtown Santa Cruz were about to open for the 26th annual Thanksgiving Community Meal, the line of hungry people stretched down the block.
For more than three hours, the line filled the sidewalk as hundreds passed through the doors that once again served as a portal to an atmosphere of joy and generosity. A wonderful community tradition had been reborn.
For more than 25 years prior to 2010, Bill Motto Post 5888 hosted a Thanksgiving Dinner for the entire homeless community, which then, as now, included many veterans. In 2010, the vets were evicted from their home office located in the Veterans Memorial Building on Front Street in Santa Cruz due to structural problems related to seismic safety.
Beginning that November, a local organization known as the Friends of Thanksgiving hosted the annual dinner at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.
The vets were able to reoccupy their building in 2013 and immediately began plans to once again host the traditional Thanksgiving meal. About 1,250 pounds of turkey was cooked in advance of the event as well as dozens of side dishes.
Volunteers from the community as well as veteran services staff warmly greeted attendees before as they came into the hall. From there, they were handed a plate and met with the faces of friendly volunteers who served sliced turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, an assortment of pies and other nourishment. Organizers were delighted to report that more than 1,100 meals were served.
Jonathan, 62, heard about the meal from friends and arrived early. “This is an amazing meal and event. I just want to thank everybody that put this together.”
Kate, 37, a homeless artisan who knits and sells colorful scarves in the downtown area, said, “Although there is always a certain sense of sadness and loneliness among the homeless community, at least we’re here together and for one day we can push that loneliness aside.”
Although there is a national effort underway to house every veteran experiencing homelessness, they still represent about 11 percent of the homeless population in Santa Cruz County, according to the 2013 Homeless Census and Survey.
The veterans of Bill Motto Post 5888 understand the need for housing and services among the entire homeless community, not just vets.
Post Commander Bob Patton says it best. “We take care of our own but in Santa Cruz, ‘our own’ includes the entire community.
“This meal has always been about community and we will continue to keep this tradition of service to the homeless community alive as long as there is one vet to keep it going.”
Steve Pleich is the Director of the Santa Cruz Homeless Persons Advocacy Project.