The community searches for answers
He appeared at the Paul Lee Loft Shelter on May 3. He seemed inconspicuous, recalls Homeless Services Center Executive Director Monica Martinez. He was carrying a Bible and expressing a desire to find a Christian community to help him get closer to God. He stayed only during the evenings and showed no aggression or cause for concern.
But four days after his arrival, this man is accused of committing Santa Cruz’s first homicide of 2012.
More than a week after the fatal stabbing of 38-year-old Shannon Collins, community members are grappling with the question of how to prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from happening again—and whether it could have been avoided to begin with.
Collins, the co-owner of Camouflage in Downtown Santa Cruz, was accosted on the 300 block of Broadway on the morning of Monday, May 7. The suspect is 43-year-old transient Charles Anthony Edwards, who did not know Collins and was originally from San Francisco. He has an extensive criminal record, which includes a six-month stint in Atascadero State Hospital, which provides psychiatric services. Edwards appeared in court Wednesday, May 9, where his bail was set at $1 million.
Helbard Alkhassadeh, a resident of the “Lower Broadway” neighborhood, business owner and founder of StabSantaCruz.com, a website that tracks local stabbings, knew Collins from previous business interactions. He says he is still confounded by the fact that someone he called a friend was killed 200 yards away from his house.
“I always thought her and [her husband] Ken would’ve grown old together; that’s what kills me,” Alkhassadeh says. “To not have that be a reality anymore is so heartbreaking.”
Honing in on Homelessness
While many Santa Cruz residents have expressed sadness and support for Collins’ family, a great deal of anger has also been unleashed, with residents directing blame at police, the homeless population and city representatives. Comments on an article about the homicide on GT’s website have included reactions from “WHY, oh WHY are people with ‘an extensive violent criminal history’ allowed to roam freely?” to “Why does the leadership in Santa Cruz allow this community to be a haven for the dregs of society … It’s time for a change.”
Mayor Don Lane says that although this disgruntled attitude towards the homeless population has piqued in the aftermath of the stabbing, the opinion is not new in Santa Cruz.
“It’s been a sentiment in the community long before this homicide … that somehow the city government is responsible for there being a lot of homeless people in Santa Cruz,” Lane says. “I don’t know what facts that is based off of … but that’s how political discourse takes place sometimes in a tragic situation.”
That anger boiled over into physical violence on the evening of Thursday, May 10, when a homeless person was assaulted in an attack that police believe was retaliation for Collins’ death. The victim, who was beaten on the 200 block of Church Street, was transported to the hospital with injuries to his face, back and legs. As of writing this article, no suspects have been arrested in this incident.
Ken Vinson, Collins’ husband and Camouflage co-owner, asked in a formal statement that residents “strive for peace at this time” and avoid pointing fingers in the wake of his wife’s death.
“We all know that there are problems with the system, that there is a large transient population in our city, and that Santa Cruz has its issues,” the statement reads. “But I want to be very clear about one thing: none of these things caused this horrific crime.” You can read Vinson’s full statement on page 4.
Councilmember Lynn Robinson says this incident warrants a closer look at who is receiving services from the Homeless Services Center.
“It’s not practical to say ‘Get rid of all the homeless’… but we need a lot more scrutiny about who we’re serving in the homeless community,” Robinson says. “There are a lot more tools they need to use in terms of who they’re providing services to.”
According to Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) spokesperson Zach Friend, 39 percent of all police cases in 2011 were associated with people who were either listed as transient or had the 115 Coral St. homeless shelter listed as their address. Identifying the commonality of criminal activity involving homeless persons is complicated, however, because an officer may classify an individual as homeless if they are unable to determine their residence.
This question will be raised at a forthcoming town hall forum organized by Take Back Santa Cruz (TBSC), a grassroots anti-crime group founded by local mother Analicia Cube. “I want to know who is wandering into this town,” says Cube. “Before you get services, I want to know who you are. I don’t want [this] to be a place where vagrants and criminals can come and just hang out.”
Cube will host the event, details about which will soon be posted on TBSC’s Facebook page, with Martinez of the Homeless Services Center. “We are going to have everyone get it out—let everyone say how they’re feeling,” Cube says of the forum. “The hope is that we can find answers—that we can stop pointing fingers at each other and start talking about it and come up with resolutions.”
Martinez is aware of the backlash toward the homeless population and believes it is difficult to lay blame on one entity, especially given the suspect’s mental health history.
“We may do everything that we can to try to serve and treat people who struggle with mental illnesses … but you can’t predict what’s going to come,” she says.
She adds that she is open to hearing the community’s opinions and concerns regarding homeless services.
“We are committed to having a safe organization because we are serving a very vulnerable population,” Martinez says. “If we thought there was something we could do to keep this from ever happening again we would absolutely do that.”
The Prevention Question
“There was nothing Ms. Collins could have done that would have prevented this incident,” Friend writes in an email to GT. “It was a completely unprovoked, random and senseless act. There are no words to adequately describe how much this never should have happened.”
Friend cannot recall another homicide like this one from the eight years he has worked at the SCPD. The police do not believe it is symptomatic or could have been prevented. Nor does it speak to the nature of the involved neighborhood, says Friend.
“We believe this was an isolated incident,” Friend says. “The neighborhood itself has worked hard in the last few years, with the growth of neighborhood groups like Lower Ocean Neighbors … to improve some of the issues that have historically plagued the area.”
More than a dozen people witnessed the attack, according to Friend. While he confirms that one person tried to help Collins following the attack, while she was still alive, many community members—some GT readers, included—have wondered why the witnesses did not come to Collins’ aid during the attack.
However, according to SCPD protocol, the correct thing for a passerby or witness to do is to call 911. “Immediately call 911—professional assistance will be there within minutes,” says Friend.
Although Friend characterizes the homicide as an “isolated incident,” Alkhassadeh believes this should not be the focal point.
“Public safety shouldn’t be defined as ‘there are no criminals on our street’ or ‘this was an isolated incident,’” Alkhassadeh says. “Public safety should be defined as ‘are you scared to walk on your street,’ and we’re scared to walk on our street right now.”
Alkhassadeh describes Lower Broadway as a neighborhood where “everyone knows everyone,” so that if someone unfamiliar is loitering nearby, residents regularly call police. Although resident Don Adams states he did just that prior to the murder, Santa Cruz Regional 911 has no record of any such call in a two to three block radius around his home.
Ordinarily, when someone calls 911 to report loitering, they are asked for more details to determine if there is a facet that would warrant higher prioritization for dispatching an officer, such as if the loiterer was threatening the caller, says Dennis Kidd, interim general manager of the Santa Cruz County Regional 911 Center. Within the past year, there have been 782 calls for loitering dispatched to SCPD.
“Loitering in itself is one of the lowest priority calls we have, and everything an officer does is based on priority,” Kidd says. “But it’s not like they’re not going to be dispatched to it; they’ll respond to it as their workload directs.”
Alkhassadeh believes the police should not have to respond to every call of a person loitering in the neighborhood; rather, he puts the onus on businesses like 7-Eleven and Motel Santa Cruz, where neighbors say they saw Edwards standing in the days prior to the homicide.
“There are so many steps we can take before that guy can just loiter there, and it all starts off with the businesses [not] letting it turn into that kind of environment,” he says.
While Lane believes approaching businesses in Lower Broadway would be a good place to start, he is wary of making one entity most accountable for public safety.
“I am resistant to the idea that if we did just this one thing we can make sure it won’t happen again,” he says. “That’s not something a community can guarantee because in the end, individuals create these acts and until they commit them, they can’t be stopped.”
Robinson says she has previously worked with businesses near downtown with loitering problems and saw success when neighbors and business owners were equally proactive. She would support a similar effort by Lower Broadway residents.
Alkhassadeh, however, believes residents need to send a tougher message. Lower Broadway neighbors are collaborating on a “no tolerance zone” plan that would involve installing 12 video cameras, posting fliers about neighborhood safety, and disrupting business at 7-Eleven and Motel Santa Cruz. Alkhassadeh issued “notice of action” fliers to these establishments the weekend following Collins’ death. The fliers list intent to inform tourists of their “aiding and abetting of criminals” and hold rallies on the corner of Ocean Street and Broadway to deter customers.
“We are right now at war with crime in our neighborhood, and we have absolutely no reason to lose this war,” he says. “It begins with each individual person that lives on that street.”
The city is currently planning a special meeting of the Public Safety Committee to discuss issues surrounding the homicide, says Councilmember David Terrazas. In the meantime, Lane says that opening a dialogue with the entire community and the Lower Broadway neighborhood, in particular, is crucial to improving public safety. But he warns against the idea that there is a quick fix.
“I don’t think there’s one thing [we can do] where tomorrow everybody will feel safe there,” Lane says. “Even if police were driving by twice as often, I don’t think that’d mean everybody would feel completely safe.”
Meanwhile, Alkhassadeh speaks with a steadfast resolve about how he and his neighbors will effect change on their street. He thinks of Edwards, who he says he saw loitering near 7-Eleven the night before the murder, and how he didn’t call police but made a mental note to keep an eye on him. He thinks of the house in Lower Broadway he has called home for nine years. Most of all, he thinks of his friend Shannon and the flowers he left in front of her storefront earlier that day.
“We have our eyes open and we’re going to fight this,” he says. “This will never happen again.”
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Limbach.