Homeless services leader Claudia Brown continued to serve in her dying days – Santa Cruz Sentinel


SANTA CRUZ — Claudia Brown gave all of herself to the things that she loved. When the former Housing Matters board president died Dec. 4, around dinner time on a Friday night, she had given all of her best artwork and treasures to the friends and family members that had formed a bubble to hold her hand in the final hours.

After surviving breast cancer two decades ago, Brown began to feel off during the holidays last year. In March, she received a diagnosis more deadly than that of the virus materializing more extensively across the country at that very time — stage 4 metastatic cancer. The cancer had already attacked multiple areas of her body; it was serious and terminal on contact, her husband of 15 years Dave Evans said.

A Caring Bridge page was set up for Brown titled “Second helpings.” The couple had agreed as they traveled Highway 5 coming home from a friend’s funeral in Lake Oswego, Oregon, a handful of years ago that they were not going to blow their middle-aged years. Ten days later they were on a sailboat where Evans wrote a book that allowed them to travel the world.

Just before Brown died, the couple took a nine-day road trip through the Southwest. They hit Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Death Valley and a view, in Brown’s mind, that was only rivaled by the overlook of Lighthouse Field State Beach from the deck of her home: the Grand Canyon.

“When we got this news, there was almost nothing on our bucket list,” he said. “We raised a family, had multiple successful careers, did (good) work and were madly in love with each other. But what I would have liked was second helpings.”

Evans said that his wife approached both her personal and professional pursuits with a fierceness. It wasn’t anger or bitterness, but a fierce love, that allowed Brown to not only love the work, the clients and the constituency but everybody along the way.

“She fiercely told the truth in a way that created bridges, not divisions,” Evans said. “She was absolutely a bridge builder, but not in a ‘solidarity sister,’ appealing kind of way,” he said.

Time with family

Weeks before her death, Brown knew that her 10-month battle with cancer was mounting. She stepped down from her position on the board and intended to stay on to aid the organization in the background. She decided that spending time with her five adult children and nine grandchildren was most important; they isolated themselves and got tested so they could be around a grandmother — a woman that astonishingly stepped into their space and met them in their proximity, Evans said.

Former Housing Matters Board President Claudia Brown, right, and her husband Dale Evans.(Contributed)

Despite going through two rounds of chemotherapy, Brown was working at least 12 hours a week until the end, her life partner said. Housing Matters Executive Director Phil Kramer and Board Director Maggie McKay surprised Brown with what Evans deemed her celebration of life on the Zoom meeting in which she stepped down.

“Countless people said something like, ‘I’ll never forget you because of what you meant to me,’” he said. “She both cared about (people) and took care of them.”

Brown had a long, successful career in enterprise technology in Silicon Valley when she retired and moved with Evans to Santa Cruz — the place she had fallen madly in love with at the age of 18, he said. She could have settled into the coastal lifestyle and stayed at home, gardening and watercolor painting as she most thoroughly enjoyed. But fierce love drove her to enter a new arena — the response to local homelessness.

McKay said she valued how her best friend of the last seven years, polar opposites through Brown’s penchant for color and McKay’s comfort with earth tones, could take really complicated topics and bring clarity. Brown did this in their friendship when she spoke about everyday struggles. Both Evans and McKay said that when Brown spoke, she didn’t need to command one’s attention. She just had it. She really listened, perhaps because she knew from a lifetime of devouring books that details matter.

“She loved Dickens,” McKay said of the English writer and social critic. “Her mother was British and also a voracious reader, so maybe that’s where it came from. (Whether) it was navigating being a grandparent or a parent, all those things in life, she (took things) on with unbridled enthusiasm.”

This was also what made her shine professionally as she helped what was once Homeless Services Center evolve into Housing Matters, a shift that Kramer said was huge and created a new definition of the beliefs of the organization.

“She approached homelessness the same way as she approached books,” Kramer said of Brown, a lifelong learner. “She wanted to know as much as possible.”

Making a change

Before its 2019 name change, Housing Matters focused on being a shelter-only operation that alleviated human suffering. Now, it still seeks to alleviate suffering but holds the mission that emergency shelter is a pathway to housing. Kramer said Brown connected the board, founders and community stakeholders as the nonprofit evaluated its operations and made the decision to get into the housing business.

“She went to conferences with us in Washington D.C., advocated on our behalf and met with (Assemblyman) Mark Stone and (U.S. Rep.) Jimmy Panetta. She was unafraid, unabashed about the injustice and wrongness of homelessness. Many of us who do this work have an issue talking calmly about it. She didn’t.”

Brown was calm and candid about the potential she saw in others, too. She held them accountable, Kramer said. When he was approached about his post and demurred, Brown encouraged him to act as interim executive director.

“For many reasons, I didn’t think it was the right fit. While I’d been working on the issue of homelessness for years before, I saw this as a thankless job; (you’re) either doing too much – ‘Your services attract the homeless,’ or too little – ‘You should be doing more to solve the problem,’” Kramer said. “I think Claudia knew well before I did that I would love the job.”

Brown’s efforts have a direct impact on Housing Matters after her death. Today, the organization is financially successful and housing a record number of people during a year it had to pivot and be nimble. But the true currency of success in nonprofit work is not measured in dollars but people served and people housed, Kramer said. It’s how many lives have been touched. Through meeting people where they were much like she did with her grandchildren, whether in casual conversation at the front desk phone helping those calling in for assistance or at the helm of conversations with some of the most powerful people in the world, Brown touched an innumerable amount of lives.

“Claudia is everywhere,” McKay said. “Everywhere.”


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