Homeless volunteers help clean up historic Santa Cruz cemetery
Three months ago at the Evergreen Cemetery, thickets of blackberry, periwinkle and ivy obscured eroded pathways and cracked gravestones. The cemetery’s seven acres and unmatched local history were largely inaccessible.
Now, the cemetery is on its way to rejuvenation via a collaborative cleanup effort of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), which owns the historic site, and the Homeless Services Center (HSC), which is located just blocks from the cemetery.
Every Monday for the past 12 weeks, from 9:30 a.m. to noon, volunteers from the HSC and elsewhere in the community have dug, hacked, pruned, raked and excavated campsites on their way through the graveyard. The project will continue until the cemetery’s renovation is complete in April.
Many of the volunteers at Evergreen Cemetery are homeless participants from the HSC.
“People so directly blame homelessness for problems in the Evergreen Cemetery and we’re directly responding to that by saying, ‘Actually, we’re doing what we can to improve the area,’” says Monica Martinez, executive director for the HSC.
HSC’s community services coordinator, Stephan Nelson, spearheads the cleanup project. Nelson has overseen similar programs for the HSC, such as the “Adopt a Levy” program with Save Our Shores and other neighborhood cleanups, however work at the Evergreen Cemetery is the largest cleanup effort in which the HSC has participated.
Nelson says volunteers covered 2.5 of the cemetery’s seven acres by week 11 of the ongoing project.
“The parts that are unfinished compared to the parts that have been refurbished—it’s an amazing feat,” says Nelson, noting that cleanup efforts build momentum each week as more and more volunteers pitch in from around the community. “I believe in volunteering: it’s a tool to bring the community together as a whole. … Everyone is welcome.”
Martinez says the project is a win-win, as it helps homeless volunteers find purpose, while assisting the MAH and larger Santa Cruz community.
“This community services team is part of our model to help people rebuild their sense of self, their sense of dignity,” she says. “You lose that when you’re homeless. You don’t have a place where you belong or have to be. … Providing people with something to do helps them rebuild that sense of purpose. Participants who regularly volunteer at the cemetery have this extreme sense of pride and achievement, and they’re learning about the history of the cemetery.”
As one of the oldest cemeteries in the nation, Evergreen’s plots represent the various communities that arrived in Santa Cruz in the 1800s before California was part of the union.
“The first burial there was in 1850,” says Sibley Simon, who works with the MAH to oversee Evergreen Cemetery’s rehabilitation. “The two most famous people buried there are Louden Nelson, who’s famous locally, and Isaac Graham, who’s another major historical figure in this area and played a part in California becoming independent from Mexico.”
The cemetery’s maintenance has been overlooked for a number of years due to lack of available time and funding on part of the MAH. While there were a few helpful short-term efforts to spruce up the grounds in recent years, Simon says the HSC volunteers’ ongoing participation is making strides that were not possible in the past.
“It’s been thrilling to have their level of energy on the project,” he says, adding that he got the idea from current Santa Cruz mayor, Don Lane, who mentioned a partnership between the MAH and HSC last fall. “So I picked it up and ran with it, and contacted homeless services,” says Simon.
Lane recalls thinking that each organization could benefit from putting their heads together.
“I think the community needs to find new ways to deal with the problem of homelessness,” says Lane. “I’m not trying to divert the city government away from all the basic functions it needs to take on, I’m just trying to use the opportunity I have as mayor to raise an issue and get people talking and thinking about it, and maybe doing something about it.”
The MAH plans to have an “opening day” on Saturday, April 21 to celebrate the progress that is happening at the cemetery.
“We want to show people in the community all the work we’ve done there, and then share our plans for going forward,” Simon says. “We’re going to give a tour that shares some of the history, tell some stories of some of the folks buried there, and also recognize the volunteers.”
Simon adds that groundskeeping efforts are the first of several steps to sprucing up the historic site. Future plans include repairs of fences and steps, drainage improvements overseen by the City of Santa Cruz, and restoration of individual plots with broken headstones.
Once restoration is complete, tasks will include the installation of informational signs and an audio tour that tell the story along the cemetery’s haunting paths.
Photo: Jesse Clark