homeless encampments santa cruz

The Future of Encampments in Santa Cruz

Timeline unclear, as leaders plan for new model, based on San Diego effort

Shawn Owens tidies up his corner of the benchlands encampment at San Lorenzo Park that grew out of an announcement from Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills that officers would stop enforcing the sleeping ban. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

It’s mid-afternoon on a sunny winter day, four months after the first transients pitched tents in the benchlands area of San Lorenzo Park. The camp, freshly cleaned by parks and recreation workers, is once again being filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Campers here have heard chatter about relocating to the Harvey West area, but at this point they, like the rest of the community, are waiting for the city of Santa Cruz to announce the next move.

Billy Lowery was one of the first people to set up camp in the benchlands after being asked to move from the downtown Post Office area. He says he’s optimistic about the next move if Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills, who was sworn in this past summer, is involved, like he was with the last one.

Lowery says Mills talks to homeless individuals with respect. “The chief—he did good. I love the way he talks to people,” Lowery says. He says that, until recently, he had felt disillusioned with local police, but that he thinks officers have taken a different approach under Mills.

Lowery, 54, with a salt-and-pepper Afro and an animated face, grew up in the housing projects of Watts in Los Angeles. Lowery is hopeful that the city and county plan to provide opportunities for a way out of homelessness, as well as a safe place to sleep. He sees the need for mental health help and job counseling.

“I can guarantee you, 40-something percent of people would change if you gave them the opportunity to learn something and go to a job interview. You’ll see so many people change. I like that,” he says about the prospect of these services being offered at the River Street Camp located at 1220 River St., just north of the Tannery.

The timeline for the move is still uncertain though, and previously set goals for moving have come and gone. “We’re still operating under ‘as soon as we can,’” says Assistant City Manager Tina Shull, “so we don’t have a hard and fast date yet. What I will say that is very encouraging is that we are moving very close to having an operator identified.” The chosen nonprofit operator will oversee the operational details of the camp, she says.

Shull says she and other leaders from the city and county modeled the latest plan after San Diego’s partnership with the nonprofit Alpha Project. San Diego had a large Hepatitis A outbreak that began in the homeless population and ultimately resulted in 20 deaths there, as it spread to Santa Cruz.

Moving to a managed campground at the city’s River Street lot will be just the first step in a three-pronged approach. The second will be to move the camp from there to a leased property, which Shull believes they’ll be able to do within four months, although they don’t have a property lined up. The third step will be moving it onto a property that the city hopes the county will help purchase—but no one has answers about where it might be. All three phases will involve day-use type services, with shifting structures and capacity, says city analyst Susie O’Hara.

There will be places for tents, common areas, storage facilities, portable showers and toilets, Shull says, and the city will bring in a meal daily. Health and human service workers from the county will reach out to determine individual needs and do assessments, she adds.

The city has graded the gravel lot to prevent water from flowing into the nearby San Lorenzo River, and Shull says she canvassed the residential homes near the site in December to talk to residents about the city’s plans. Residents had questions about security, she says, but, after her conversations with them, she believes they won’t notice any impact from the city-run encampment in Harvey West.

“It’s hosted 24/7 so you have people on site,” Shull says. “You have security on site, and you have a lot of services coming through, so it’s not just a place for people to pitch a tent. It’s a place for community building for them to start their exit from homelessness.”

Now that officers have stopped enforcing the camping ban on public property, it isn’t clear whether or not the San Lorenzo Park encampment will actually end once the River Street one opens.

Homeless advocate Brent Adams says that while he appreciates the overall approach of providing a more long-term solution, he wishes the city were taking a more data-driven approach, similar to the encampment models in Eugene and Seattle. “As director of the Warming Center, we support and applaud these, with the asterisk of we wish we were more involved, and only because we’ve done the work. We really have seen what’s possible, and it ain’t a security guard,” says Adams, who had hoped to partner with the city on a homeless storage program before being spurned by city leaders.

Adams says a full-spectrum approach would include an emergency shelter, a transitional encampment, a parking program for the hundreds of people living in their cars, and safe sleep zones—a more temporary, overnight allowance for sleep. Adams has shared the Eugene city manager’s 2016 second annual report on these programs with local city and county officials, as well as with GT. According to the report, 75 individuals from Eugene’s housing program—45 percent of the residents—went to permanent housing when they left, up from 31 percent in 2015). Residents there contributed a total of 636 hours of community service, according to the report.

Shull says that even though it’s newer, the San Diego model provides a useful template for responding to an urgent public health emergency. With the help of a nonprofit, San Diego launched a managed campground, while getting other types of shelter up and running.

O’Hara says the use of a storage facility for housing, one of 20 stand-alone recommendations that the council adopted in May of last year, would be best partnered with a day-services center and overnight shelter. “Many of the folks that would be using the campground site would be in need of storage as well,” she says, “so it just made sense to find an operator that could do both of those things at one site.”


Contributor at Good Times |

Andrea is a master of the Santa Cruz side hustle. She’s an adjunct English instructor at Cabrillo College, an Uber driver, a dog walker, and a freelance writer. An often horrified national news junkie, she is moved to act locally by partnering with documentary filmmakers to tell the stories of the Santa Cruz County immigrant community.

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