‘A bright soul’: Neoklis Koumides remembered by those who knew him

The altar at the base of the clock tower in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

About 40 friends and homeless advocates gathered at the clock tower in downtown Santa Cruz to memorialize former Benchlands resident Neoklis Koumides, who was stabbed to death early Monday morning.

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A somber crowd of about 40 gathered at the clock tower in downtown Santa Cruz on Wednesday evening to remember Neoklis Koumides, a former Benchlands resident who was stabbed to death early Monday.

“He was just a bright soul, he had such great ideas to help other people,” Santa Cruz Homeless Union President Alicia Kuhl told Lookout. “He was somebody who you would think would be putting all of these problems behind him and move on to the next level of his life.”

Devotional candles on a table in front of the clock tower provided a dim light, just enough to illuminate the picture of Koumides, whom many knew as “Nick the Greek.” Festive Christmas wreaths hanging only 20 feet above exuded holiday cheer — a stark contrast to the grief at ground level.

The memorial for the 36-year-old was held just steps away from Food Not Bombs’ usual site.

About 40 members of the community came to pay respects to Neoklis Koumides.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Many of the attendees, some of whom knew Koumides for years, are unhoused Food Not Bombs patrons, just as he was. For them, he was like a family member.

One man, Drew, first saw Nick about two years ago when he began working with Food Not Bombs.

Police arrested 64-year-old John Frederick Burke on Wednesday as a suspect in the murder of 36-year-old Neoklis...

“He was living on the levee, and I would see him in the early morning practicing what looked like a combination of yoga and dance,” he said. “I just thought, ‘What a radiant being.’ Now that radiant being has graduated to a radiant soul.”

First responders arrived at the parking garage at Cedar and Church streets about 5:10 a.m. Monday. They found Koumides was on the ground, having received at least one stab wound. He died at Dominican Hospital despite all efforts.

Santa Cruz police arrested a suspect, 64-year-old John Frederick Burke, on Tuesday night, though that was of little comfort for the many community members who have a shared history with Koumides.

Kuhl told Lookout that Koumides was probably sleeping in that parking lot, likely because he did not take city-offered shelter at the Armory once he was cleared from the Benchlands. She said he could have refused shelter for a number of reasons.

“You can’t necessarily go up there and stay in your own group, it’s almost out of town and away from services, and they have to be shuttled in and out” she said. “A lot of people didn’t think that’s dignified.”

When addressing the crowd, Kuhl read a message from Koumides’ family and shared some of her own thoughts.

“No matter what you’re going through or what argument you have with someone, it’s never worth taking their life,” she said, holding back tears. “As we get together over the holidays, remember to hold your loved ones really tight. We never know when the last time we’re going to see them is.”

A handful of others spoke to the gatherers through a bullhorn, sharing their experiences with Nick throughout the years.

A speaker named Isaac said he had known Koumides for 17 years. He said that Koumides always checked in on him whenever they crossed paths.

“When I was out in the street performing [spoken word and hip-hop], this guy was always making sure I was safe,” he said. “We really have to take care of our people, I’m tired of seeing this happen in Santa Cruz.”

He expressed frustration with the city’s homelessness response.

“Santa Cruz needs to get it right, we got all this money and resources, and we say we’re doing things but we’re not,” he said. “No one should have to sleep on the streets.”

Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry said he was struck by how many people had shared stories about Koumides just over the previous two days.

Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry at Wednesday's memorial.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Since his passing, I’ve heard many, many stories of him helping others on the side of the road,” he said. “It is really tragic that we keep seeing our friends pass away on the streets of Santa Cruz.”

While many remembered how Koumides was, others said they are haunted by what could have been.

“I always hoped he would become a colleague at some point, and the fact that I’m not going to welcome him as a co-worker freaking kills me,” said Brian Lands, guest experience program manager at Housing Matters.

Lands, who has worked for the agency for eight years, said Koumides was on the list to get into one of the organizations’ shelters.

“So when I found out about this, that’s what killed me,” he told Lookout. “If a guy like him had been able to be in a stable place, I think he would have made very good use of that time.”

Food Not Bombs will hold its annual memorial for those who have died on the streets Dec. 21.

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