A man was stabbed and killed in downtown Santa Cruz in the early hours of Monday morning. Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry knew the man as Neoklis Koumides, or “Nick the Greek.” Police were searching for the suspect.
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A former Benchlands resident and podcaster was killed in an early morning stabbing fight by the parking garage on Cedar and Church streets. It is the second attack on an unhoused person evicted from the Benchlands in less than two months, renewing concerns about the city’s process to clear the encampment.
The Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) said in a statement that emergency personnel responded to a report of a fight in the downtown at 5:10 a.m Monday. The victim, an unhoused man, was on the ground, having received at least one stab wound, when first responders arrived.
Despite all efforts, the victim died at Dominican Hospital.
Detectives learned through witness interviews that the suspect and victim were “somehow acquainted or had known each other from the past,” SCPD Deputy Chief Jon Bush told Lookout. The two had an argument that led to a physical fight, resulting in the stabbing.
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The suspect is described as a white male, 30 to 40 years old and about 220 pounds. He was last seen leaving the scene on foot wearing a gray pullover sweater, blue jeans, a red beanie and gray athletic shoes. Bush said police had yet to identify the suspect.
“We don’t know his identity or much about him,” he said, adding that it was not clear whether the suspect is also experiencing homelessness.
Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs, identified the victim as 34-year-old Neoklis Koumides. McHenry said he had known Koumides for several years.
Koumides, also known as “Nick the Greek,” was a former Benchlands resident who hosted the podcast “Love Wins,” in which he discussed societal issues with guests and friends. He had also gone to Food Not Bombs for his meals for two to three years.
“I’m just heartbroken, he was really gentle and loving and had a lot of great ideas and he was working hard to get off the streets” said McHenry. “He was wanting to set up a nonprofit group whose goal was to encourage young people to do something positive with their life, and maybe even go to juvenile hall and give a presentation about those ideas.”
McHenry went on to say that incidents like these are the tragic reality of the current state of homelessness. He said that while Koumides was living in the Benchlands, he lived in a small group of people who acted as a support system. He said that situation was likely safer for Koumides than living elsewhere, essentially on his own.
“We could have worked to move each of those communities together somewhere else,” said McHenry, adding that Koumides was likely sleeping in the parking garage on Cedar and Center streets. “People did die and get injured at the Benchlands, but he lived in a group of people who would have supported him.”
McHenry said that this is the second friend of his that has been “put in harm’s way because of the evictions,” recalling his friend Max, who was attacked on Ocean Street in September. The 53-year-old man sustained head injuries after two Scotts Valley High School students allegedly assaulted him Sept. 30.
He said that he does not believe that the City of Santa Cruz took these consequences into consideration when it chose to evict the more than 200 people living in the Benchlands encampment and offer shelter space in the process. Only about 31% of those evicted opted for city-offered shelter. It wasn’t clear if Koumides was among them.
“If you’re not down and dirty and close with what’s happening, you don’t realize that several hundred people had no option but to just do things like find places in parking garages and on the levee,” he said.
McHenry added that while he supported moving people from the Benchlands, he doesn’t think the city’s approach was adequate.
“We’ve had over two years of preparation to make sure every single person in the Benchlands had some kind of place to safely be and the city didn’t do that,” he said.
Larry Imwalle, homelessness response manager for the City of Santa Cruz, said it’s hard to say if any one place on the streets is better than another.
“Living unsheltered is obviously a vulnerable situation wherever it is, but I’m not going to speculate on whether one spot is inherently safer than another,” he said. “I’m not sure there’s good evidence to suggest one way or the other.”
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Still, he says that while this event is tragic, he believes closing the Benchlands was the right move.
“There were a number of significant public health and safety risks associated with the Benchlands,” he said. “I wouldn’t characterize it as a safe environment prior to its closure.”
Though the uptake for city-offered shelter was low throughout the process, Imwalle said that the work has continued.
“Our outreach team is still engaging with folks who are unsheltered throughout the city, including people who were formerly in the Benchlands,” he said. “Many of those connections to services and case management continue whether the person sought shelter or not.”
Imwalle said that a number of people who moved into areas adjacent to the Benchlands ended up taking shelter after the closure had finished, but he did not have specific data.
Though the death of Koumides comes just over a month after the attack on Ocean Street, Bush said crimes against unhoused individuals don’t look to be increasing.
“At this point in the investigation, it doesn’t appear that this person was targeted because they were homeless,” he said. “I haven’t necessarily run numbers, but nothing is indicating an increased behavior of targeting homeless people.”