Greg Cruz, The Fearless Leader of Streets of Paradise in Sarasota, Florida
By the time Greg Cruz, Streets of Paradise President, was 11 years old he had what is often referred to as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Without caretakers to protect him he endured chronic and multiple repeated traumatic events that began in infancy and continued into adulthood.
Greg’s father died from a heroin overdose when he was only eleven years old. Both his parents were active heroin addicts and, shortly after his father’s death, the State removed Greg and his five-year-old sister from their home. During this tumultuous time in his life, he was further devalued by society when his adorable five-year-old sister was readily placed in a foster home, and he was not. He grew up feeling rejected and unworthy of love.
He was placed in what he describes as a ‘teen warehouse’ during the day and, in the evenings, he would be driven in a van and dropped off at a different home each night. “It felt weird… I wasn’t falling between the cracks…I was in the cracks…even though I was in custody of the State,” Greg says. He vividly remembers a harrowing institutional placement without regulations in the ’80s, where his counselors were rough men without formal training or supervision. A counselor brutally broke his jaw in three distinct places during his stay. With a broken jaw, Greg was given $150 and released to the streets. His mother, in the throes of heroin addiction, was in no position to take him in and he was left to survive on the streets. Greg lives with irreversible scars after years spent fighting to survive, which made him no stranger to housing insecurity and the ravages caused by drug addiction.
Greg’s past of prolonged neglect, abuse and poverty has fostered his nuanced level of empathy for the cause he so deeply supports. Greg’s firsthand experience with homelessness and the cycles of poverty and violence that often accompany one another enables him to raise awareness with compassion. He empathizes with the street friends he meets and humanizes those he interacts with as almost interchangeable with himself. Ultimately, his motivation for Streets of Paradise Outreach holds less weight than the impact of the organization itself. His self described life’s purpose is raising awareness and providing rehousing services for the homeless and at-risk community in Sarasota. The stories he hears during street outreach activities ground and inspire him because he understands how easily homelessness occurs for the most vulnerable members of society. Through his natural skills of active listening coupled with a non-judgemental street friend outreach approach, he readily establishes rapport.
Outside of providing food, hygiene items, clothing, and emotional support the nonprofit’s mission evolved into uncovering where the fundamental need gaps in social services delivery existed. It became apparent that for a street friend leaving a shelter during the rehousing process, with their limited possessions bundled into one or two garbage bags and little in the way of savings, a critical need existed for free furniture and move in services. After some research, the Streets of Paradise team discovered that housing retention is highest amongst individuals that have received social support during rehousing; although intuitive, this major success factor is often overlooked during the rehousing process. Motivated by a ‘working together’ collaborative philosophy Streets of Paradise is coordinating with Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness through their Continuum of Care initiative for Sarasota and Manatee counties. During the rapid rehousing process, once a house is found for a ‘street friend’ through Suncoast Partnership, Streets of Paradise steps in and assumes full responsibility for the move-in process.
Volunteers are provided with a comprehensive list of move-in necessities for the individual or family. Appropriate selections are made by gathering beds, linens, tables, chairs, artwork, bake-ware, cookware, appliances, and even cleaning supplies from Streets of Paradise’s climate controlled warehouse. The intention is to convert ‘four walls and a roof’ into a comfortable, livable home, thereby facilitating ‘street friends’ getting their lives back on track. The critical services provided by Streets of Paradise removes the financial burden of furnishing a house, entails that frequently overwhelm someone with limited financial resources.
Streets of Paradise outreach volunteers deeply respect their homeless friends and recognize that the people they befriend on the streets are survivors of one hardship or another, including intimate partner violence (IPV), dealing with emotional difficulties, addiction, mental illness, or the loss of a job coupled with a lack of savings.The support continues beyond move-in day with a transition liaison assigned to support a newly housed friend with individualized follow up. With Greg Cruz’s positive attitude and his ‘can-do approach,’ there is no doubt that no matter how many friends Streets of Paradise houses, this exceptional non-profit will remain true to its core mission.
If you are able, we would love it if you could make a donation to help us achieve our mission. To donate time and/or money, please visit our website at streetsofparadise.org.
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” ~ Maya Angelou
Images courtesy of photographer and Streets of Paradise co-founder Allan Mestel. For more images from this series and more of Allan’s work please visit www.streetworkstudios.com and www.mestelphoto.com