Growing up homeless and in the foster care systems of New York, Greg Cruz, 46, faced issues of abandonment, isolation and fear, wondering when he would find his next meal. It’s this lived experience that inspired Cruz to found Streets of Paradise in 2018 with the mission of fighting homelessness in Sarasota and Manatee.
The fight intensified during the pandemic, when organizations for the homeless were forced to shut their doors. Cruz, now president of Streets of Paradise, and volunteers scoured the region to find people in need and help them with food (they served 15,000 meals for 79 consecutive days) and mobile showers in a $52,000 custom trailer they purchased with donations.
Streets of Paradise has also become the go-to organization for people who are being re-housed and need furniture and household goods. The organization rents a warehouse, collects used furniture and has furnished 1,100 homes since March 2019, including two apartment complexes for people in need. “Without furniture, only 15 percent stay in housing,” Cruz says.
The group’s office is in their new art gallery—Love-Art-Repeat—in the Rosemary District. It’s a place for community building, fund raising and operations, so Streets of Paradise can continue to feed, shower and help re-house people on a weekly basis. “But this is also about relationships,” Cruz says. “The physical needs are no more important than love and dignity.”
The number of homeless has grown in the last two years as Sarasota and Manatee have become more unaffordable. Streets of Paradise has been funded with small, private donations through word of mouth and is almost entirely operated by volunteers. So far, this grassroots approach has worked, but Cruz, who didn’t take a salary until last year, wants to expand the group’s ability to help those who are homeless.
“We’re trying to level the playing field. We want to give these people a hand and let them know they are not forgotten,” says Cruz. “Anywhere that we can help with this homeless crisis, we will be on the frontlines. No questions asked.”