Unsung Santa Cruz: As the navigator in chief, he’s helping steer county’s most vulnerable into housing

John Dietz of Housing Matters fist-bumps a client
John Dietz meets with a client named Violet recently at the downtown library in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

John Dietz is not your average 85-year-old riding out his golden years. He and his team at the downtown Santa Cruz library work diligently to help house folks who might otherwise be deemed off-limits by landlords. They help find important paperwork, fill out forms and prepare for housing interviews. Once those clients are in, the team helps them remain stable. If and when they lose that roof overhead, Dietz and his team try, try again.

Housing is hard to find in Santa Cruz, period. But try finding it as part of the homeless community.

Imagine you are one of the lucky ones with a housing voucher in hand or some form of income — Social Security, disability, a job — that allows you to afford rent. You think you have a golden ticket.

But not really. How do you locate all the necessary paperwork that’s gone missing amid the life turmoil that results in homelessness — a driver’s license, a birth certificate, a Social Security card, a PG&E bill, a credit report? How do you convince a landlord that you are a trustworthy tenant, explaining away your fall into homelessness?

What you do if you are fortunate: You find John Dietz.

John Dietz of Housing Matters
John Dietz on a recent Tuesday at the downtown Santa Cruz library.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The silver-haired former Silicon Valley aerospace executive, and his small team of volunteers, are the real golden ticket when it comes to putting those experiencing homelessness into housing and keeping them there. They serve as a missing link between the county’s most vulnerable unhoused population and a roof overhead.

“A lot of people like to talk about the homelessness issue in Santa Cruz — there’s compassion, frustration, finger-pointing, fatigue,” said fellow advocate Maggie McKay, who nominated Dietz for Unsung Santa Cruz honors. “But he walks the walk.”

What does his quietly powerful gait look like? For the past decade, Dietz, 85, has volunteered at the downtown Santa Cruz Public Library’s Life Literacies Center as a housing navigator for local and, often, medically fragile individuals.

His organizational skills, connections and passion for the work are so strong that what began as a grassroots attempt to fill a small gap has become an essential, approachable cog within the fractured, siloed world of homelessness response.

John has created a safe place for people to come to at the library.

— Volunteer David Mintz

“John has created a safe place for people to come to at the library,” said volunteer David Mintz, a former school principal. “He has taught us how to sit down with them and go through their finances, to get them to tell us how much money they’ve earned, what their physical disabilities are, what their family situation is, what their drug situation is. He has built that trust with people so that we can help them.”

* * *

On Tuesday mornings, Dietz and his group meet with folks experiencing homelessness and guide them through the mind-boggling process of finding housing by helping fill out endless documents and forms, combing rental ads and developing relationships with local landlords.

More than 70 people have been coaxed and coached into shelter since the project management-minded Dietz and four other retired volunteers formed this mission 10 years ago.

John Dietz is in problem-solving mode on Tuesdays at the library.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“These are folks who landlords haven’t taken either because of how they look or their background,” he said. “So we want to take the time to figure out what their barriers are and what their needs are. If someone has a serious drug problem, we can get them with a case manager to work on that part.”

The hardest ones to find housing for are those who have fallen out of shelter. After years of stability, a client’s landlord wants to update or remodel their place and suddenly — poof — a person once saved by housing must start all over again.

I understand it from both sides because you’ve got many property owners who need that money to be able to afford their retirement.

— John Dietz

“It’s a very common problem around here right now,” Dietz said. “But I understand it from both sides because you’ve got many property owners who need that money to be able to afford their retirement. I hear people say, ‘How do I not put my grandchildren through college?’ So there are two sides to the story.”

The housing-the-unhoused equation requires someone at the helm who can navigate as both a savvy business person and someone who has seen the pain and suffering of homelessness up close.

“In the business world, I had a lot of managers that helped open doors for me,” Dietz reasoned. “So I’m trying to help open doors for people to stabilize their lives.”

But before he could navigate homelessness, and nudge others toward calmer waters, John Dietz knew he had to circumnavigate the globe.

* * *

The Paul Gerard, John Dietz's 52-foot sailboat.
(Via John Dietz)

Dietz said he never intended to climb the corporate ladder in the aerospace industry. He was just a kid fascinated by the power of ham radios. But that curiosity and diligence led him all the way to vice president status and the luxuries of turning retirement into world exploration.

The 52-foot sailboat he purchased in 2002, the Paul Gerard, named after his late father, took him everywhere — and, most importantly, to the Mediterranean Sea, where he would retrace the steps of Homer in the ancient Greek epic poem “The Odyssey.”

He said his eyes were opened to the world’s greater possibilities when he read the book at age 15 and knew he would one day attempt the same seemingly impossible course — prove that hard things were worth the challenge. He spent a decade at sea and it was all that he imagined.

But for him, it wasn’t about the solitude that many sailors seek. Dietz, ever the project manager and people person, gathered other sailors, new and experienced, together and worked collectively to help one another solve problems and achieve their nautical goals.

After a decade, “I had fulfilled that dream and it was getting harder and harder to move around a boat,” Dietz said.

John Dietz goes over the paperwork needs with a client who recently fell out of housing.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

He knew it was time to take his penchant for problem-solving and teamwork and apply it to the biggest problem of our time — one he had become intimately familiar with three decades earlier.

The seed for helping the unhoused had been planted way back in 1980. That’s when a close family member struggling with mental health issues decided to take off and live in his vehicle. Dietz decided to become an active part of that person’s path forward, connecting him with a debit card so he could track his whereabouts and connect with him in person often.

He said the family member parked his vehicle for an extended period at a truck stop in Kansas. “I got the family to put together some money and I found a place nearby and we bought it for him,” Dietz recalled. “It took him a while to feel comfortable moving in. He parked outside at first. But once he moved in, it transformed his life.”

Dietz is a “housing first” guy. A roof overhead with warmth, electricity, a toilet and actual clean running water will always be a better place to stabilize one’s life than under a freeway overpass or tucked beneath a bush on the side of a road.

But getting someone into housing is only half of the navigation process. Dietz and his volunteer crew work diligently to make sure those relationships between a client and a landlord go well — that folks with needs get those services.

Ernst Keller, 70, enjoys fresh groceries and a chat with navigator Cheryl Hanley.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Folks like Ernst Keller, whom Dietz’s team helped house at MidPen’s senior housing at St. Stephen’s Church.

Once a week, Dietz and team members spread out around the county with bags of donated groceries from organizations such as Second Harvest and the Homeless Garden Project. It’s a chance to check in on their clients and see how they are doing.

He sees this as a valuable opportunity to chat, encourage and problem-solve.

— Maggie McKay of fellow advocate John Dietz

“He sees this as a valuable opportunity to chat, encourage and problem-solve,” said McKay, the fellow housing advocate.

For 70-year-old Keller, those Tuesday visits “are like Christmas Day every week when they show up with a bag of groceries.”

“It’s nice to have someone visit you,” Keller said. “Having that doorbell ring fills in a lot of space when you’re a senior.”

John Dietz of Housing Matters
John Dietz gathers donated groceries to bring to clients.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For Dietz and his team, it serves as an opportunity to look for signs of trouble that they might be able to get out in front of. Are there any noticeable changes to the environment inside or outside the living space — dishes uncharacteristically stacked in the sink, an overflowing mailbox — or with the client themselves? Are there any signs of distress?

“You form these relationships with landlords too that put trust in your client,” Dietz said. “So you’re in the middle, working for both of them, trying to make sure it works out for everyone.”

* * *

That process begins in a glassed-off office in the back of the downtown library. On a recent Tuesday, a man named Brad, 65, someone Dietz helped find housing for eight years earlier, ambled in and sat down to do some fresh strategizing with his navigation guru.

After eight years living in a studio unit in Live Oak, Brad was evicted in early August for what Dietz describes as communication problems between Brad and the landlord. Since then he’s been living in a tent under a Highway 1 overpass.

John Dietz has helped house more than 70 people over the past decade.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

He knows where to get hot food and a shower; he gets health care from the Homeless Persons Health Project. Dietz said Brad had told him before being housed he had lived without housing for 30 years, so it didn’t surprise Dietz that Brad seemed to be dealing with his plight reasonably well.

That is until the past few months, as the early-morning temperatures began to drop well below the normal average. Now he’s looking thinner and acting somewhat moody, very uncharacteristic of the Brad whom Dietz has gotten to know well over the past eight years.

Brad reminds Dietz of the relative he was able to get housed more than 40 years ago back in Kansas — the person who sparked this passion in him.

He hopes he can help Brad get rehoused before the elements take a dangerous toll. But he knows how difficult the system is to navigate, the boxes to be checked anew before they locate a landlord who will say yes.

Dietz, ever the pragmatist and project manager, stays focused on the details he can control rather than those he cannot.

While Brad made on-time payments for eight straight years, he wasn’t using a debit card and therefore built no credit history. Dietz helped him get a new one to restart that process. He also helped Brad renew his driver’s license and has begun the process of locating Section 8 voucher-friendly landlords for his specific need, a studio unit or one-bedroom.

“The process is what it is — it’s not easy,” Dietz said. “I’m working to see if we can get him into some kind of shelter. His health, in a word, is deteriorating.”

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