Robert Norse always does his homework.
So, when the homeless advocate and I sat down for breakfast at Hoffman’s Bakery, he made sure to study up and bring copies of the two weekly papers I write for and his own tape recorder.
Norse will be the first to admit that he and Hoffman’s have, at times, been “on opposite sides of the fence.” He has disagreed with the restaurant management on minimum wage legislation, and one of Hoffman’s managers serves on the Downtown Commission that supports several city laws Norse is fighting. But he loves their eggs Benedict and besides, for Norse, criticism is nothing personal.
He is also critical of other downtown businesses, the Santa Cruz City Council, the City Manager’s Office, and even our city news desk here at City on a Hill Press, all of which he says re-affirm the status quo.
Norse, co-founder of Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF), opposes the downtown ordinances that discourage panhandling, street performing and generally target the homeless. The ordinances forbid anyone from sitting on a public bench for more than one hour. They also forbid panhandling after dark or within 14 feet of trash receptacles, public art such as statues, or directory signs and 50 feet of an ATM.
City on Hill Press: You have been a longtime opponent of the sleeping ban, which is not a ‘downtown ordinance,’ but rather applies to the entire city. Why is that such a big issue for you?
Robert Norse: You can’t really do anything else unless you can sleep at night. The criminalization of poor people for sleeping opens up a huge amount of harassment to homeless people, and essentially, it’s a ‘get out of town’ law for poor and homeless people. It’s a code that doesn’t belong in any 21st-century city.
CHP: What is HUFF doing to address these issues?
RN: I wish we were doing more. … There are a lot of illusions about Santa Cruz that we try to dispel in the hope that the myth can really become the reality, that we really will become a liberal, progressive city.
CHP: You and four others are each fighting $445 citations you received for publicly singing your version of Petula Clark’s 1965 classic ‘Downtown’ with revised lyrics. How do you think Petula Clark would feel about the rendition?
RN: I don’t know what her views were on civil rights for poor people. She was kind of a cheery person. Although I liked her songs, can’t say. I don’t know that much about her as an activist or a person — I don’t know that she was an activist. She might have been, but we certainly have changed her lyrics.
CHP: You have lost two court cases over the past few years, one for an incident at the Metro Center and another for performing an ironic Nazi salute at a City Council meeting. It sounds to me like Robert Norse can’t catch a break. Why do you think that is?
RN: Well, I don’t think that’s always true. I’ve won cases. We’ve successfully sued the city. … I haven’t won much recently, though. I will say that.
CHP: You have serious problems with the decisions that some City Council members have made, but I have found that most of the council members have good intentions and are good people. What do you think of this discrepancy?
RN: To be very critical of these people is not to be critical of them personally at all. I would be the first to try to be helpful to any one of them if there was a problem. In fact, I’m friends with the guy I’m suing in court — friends is a strong word. But you know, we’re amiable. We see each other, we say ‘hi.’
CHP: You have a lot of issues with the leaders and media in this town. Why do you stay?
RN: Well, it’s where I live. What can I say, man? It’s really a good question. I don’t know … I know people here. … I even like some of the people that I disagree with, but I don’t know if they’re the reason that I stay. Maybe I’m just too old to move.
CHP: You have a place to live and sleep. You appear much better off than many of the groups you work to support. How did homeless advocacy become such an important cause for you?
RN: I come from a social justice background. Also, I’ve been homeless myself, briefly. I didn’t like it. So I just got involved, and I never got dis-involved. It became sort of a habit. It became something that I thought was important to pursue, maybe a comfortable niche. I don’t know that your social position or your income necessarily determines what you do.
CHP: Students may not be familiar with HUFF and many of the issues you fight for and support. Is there anything in particular you would like to tell them?
RN: We need help. We’re interested in how poor and homeless people are being treated on campus. We’re interested in getting people involved downtown, encouraging businesses, encouraging the police and the City Council to adopt a more sane and reasonable solution to obvious problems that aren’t going to go away and that need some kind of natural response, instead of a ‘drive ‘em out of town’ response.
For more information about how to get involved with HUFF, call (831) 423-4833 or visit HUFFSantaCruz.org.