Jeff Hess, otherwise known as the Ambassador from the 24th Dimension, is looking for people who like to draw and to write. A onetime homeless activist who frequently testified before the Santa Barbara City Council dressed in a purple wizard’s robe with a conical sorcerer’s hat — the Ambassador’s garb — Hess now resides in Cibola, Arizona, where, among other things, he puts out a semi-regular publication known as Chronicles of the Ambassador. To that end, he’s soliciting written and graphic commentary —“optimistic ideas mixed with riverboat sarcasm” — for what he described as “a letter to the future.” Submissions can be mailed to Route D, Box 126, Cibola, AZ, 85328.
Hess lived in Santa Barbara from 1988 to 1993, where as a member of the street scene, he contributed a surreal sweetness to the sometimes confrontational political theater then attending homeless issues. A native of Davenport, Iowa — where he tossed hay bales about before joining the Navy for a seven-year stint — Hess was powerfully built and not one to mess with. But somehow, he managed to negotiate a passable truce with the demons that plagued him; the outward face he displayed was friendly, intense, and muscularly positive. “Because I’ve been to the darker side, I can say I’ve seen the light,” said Hess.
Hess said he was first visited by “grays” — extraterrestrial “watchers” — at five years of age. “It was confusing as hell,” he said. Somehow, he managed. In school, Hess got along. Because of his obvious physical strength, other kids didn’t tease him. He was neither jock, nerd, nor loner. He worked on the high school paper. His father wasn’t sure what to make of it. “My dad didn’t talk about it much,” he said. Over the years, Hess said, the watcher never left. Hess came not only to accept him, but to embrace him. To a certain extent, in fact, Hess became him. “The 24th Dimension is about multiple realities and multiple possibilities,” Hess explained. “He’s a folkloric expression forged in realism.”
After serving in the Navy, Hess moved to California. The year 1988 found him in Venice Beach. He was homeless, a victim of economics, he said, and also in pursuit of a dream. For a while, Hess involved himself with Justiceville, then a sprawling camp of homeless people and homeless advocates butting heads with Los Angeles’s powers-that-be. At that time, Hess, said, he was in a “semi-dark state.” What helped sweep him out of himself was a group of homeless activists from Santa Barbara then making a trek across the country that was one part politics and two parts personal adventure. Hess joined in and spent the next 11 months walking to Washington, D.C. He chronicled the entire journey as itinerant cartoonist, publishing his work in what would become The Brag Rag, a homeless paper. It was by marching across the United States that Hess would eventually come to Santa Barbara, roosting around the Fig Tree by the railroad depot, and appointing himself watcher, protector, and friend to the kids in three homeless families. He also was looking for opportunities to express himself as an artistic pamphleteer. When the Espressway Café opened at the bottom of Chapala Street—where Lillie’s Taqueria now operates—Hess was the first one in the door, helping the owner out with odd jobs and trying his hand at murals. (Over time the Espressway would morph into the successful restaurant Roy on Carrillo Street.)
Although Hess left Santa Barbara in 1993, he stays in close touch. When in town, he always visits Roy Gandy of Roy, whose food he praises. “Taste buds don’t lie,” Hess exclaimed. For the past 16 years, Hess has lived in Cibola, Arizona, a small town where he rents a house, does gardening work, and collects a check from Uncle Sam for injuries sustained in the Navy. “I earned it,” he said. And he paints murals — sprawling intergalactic utopian fantasies — and publishes his journal, Chronicles of the Ambassador. Since 1980, he estimates, he’s put out about 10,000 copies.
Meanwhile, Robert Norse, another former homeless rights activist—who proved far more pointed and prickly than Hess when testifying before the Santa Barbara City Council in the late 1980s—was recently the focus of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Norse was arrested in 2002 in Santa Cruz and physically removed from a city council meeting after giving the city’s mayor the Nazi salute at a public hearing. At the time, Norse was with active with Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom and was challenging city rules regulating where and when homeless people could sleep. Questions posed by the seven-justice panel seemed favorable to Norse’s arguments that Santa Cruz’s rules of public decorum were designed to stifle free speech and dissent as much as it was to maintain. One justice asked if it was legal to give the finger to police officers, why was it against the law to raise one’s arm in a Nazi salute? Another justice expressed skepticism about Santa Craz’s claim of unlimited discretion on controlling public meetings. During his time in Santa Barbara, Norse also argued against rules limiting where homeless people could sleep. He operated a soup kitchen to feed the homeless which city officials deemed was illegal. Smart, barbed, and acerbic, Norse’s criticisms of city policies could at times get downright personal.