Mack Palmer, a soft-spoken 43-year-old man who struggles to get around, was one of the first people to move to the benchlands area of San Lorenzo Park after a citywide effort to clear the downtown post office of homeless campers living there. Before that, Palmer slept by the library, and before that, near Santa Cruz City Hall.
“Mack’s appearance has a lot to do with how people treat him,” says Brent Adams, Palmer’s friend and a local homeless advocate. “He’s huge and dark, yet upon speaking with him, he’s soft and quite vulnerable.”
Sitting on his collapsed green tent, with a towel covering one of his bare feet, Palmer tells me that he has been living outside for three-and-a-half years, since his downtown apartment was foreclosed on, and he was evicted. He briefly moved in with his mom, who was sick and appreciated his help in taking care of her, Palmer says, but her landlord informed them that they were breaking U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rules, so he was out on the street.
“I haven’t been stable since,” he says.
Until recently, he was sleeping on concrete with only a sleeping bag. His living conditions have improved since being allowed to set up a tent at night and take it down during the day, in cooperation with a new moratorium on the sleeping ban that SCPD chief Andy Mills announced in a GT op-ed last month. In the days that followed, many others set up camp in San Lorenzo Park. The city brought in portable toilets, wash basins and extra trash cans.
Palmer has high blood pressure and sleep apnea. Last year when it started raining, he got sick three times.
“I don’t think I could do that again,” he says. “I was put in the hospital in intensive care three times. I have to sleep with a sleeping mask, but out here I can’t sleep with one. And I really need to have that, because I stop breathing.”
Controversy is already swirling around the San Lorenzo Park encampment—and this isn’t the first time. It’s an area that—not unlike the homeless population itself—city officials have never exactly known how to manage. Occupy Santa Cruz, an offshoot of the larger Occupy protests that began on Wall Street, was started in San Lorenzo Park in the fall of 2011 by twentysomethings who said they were fed up with corporate abuses and a financial system that protected institutions it deemed “too big to fail.” That camp’s main hub was above the benchlands and closer to the Santa Cruz County Government Center than the current one. As it swelled in size over time, Occupy Santa Cruz—like similar movements in other cities—grew into a gathering place for local homeless in search of safety and community. Unsubstantiated rumors spread through the media about a disease outbreak, and feces dumped on the other side of the river. Not long after, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department served the campers with an eviction notice. A day later, before dawn on Tuesday, Dec. 6, officers from all over the county, dressed in riot gear, rousted the remaining campers.
“There are those who think I’m enabling. They want to see rigorous enforcement on the homeless. What does that look like? We’ve written thousands of tickets, literally, for camping. Boy, that’s worked well.” — SCPD Chief Andy Mills
Adams says the Occupy camp was vastly different from the current situation, and City Manager Martín Bernal, who’s been with the city for 20 years, agrees. “First, the numbers were much bigger,” Bernal says. “The purpose was totally different, and the situation was totally different in terms of what caused it to come into existence.”
In the six years since, city leaders, along with local nonprofits and clubs, have taken steps to make both the San Lorenzo River and park more inviting to Santa Cruz residents and visitors, in the name of “activating” the area. The Public Works Department installed lighting on part of the lower part of the riverwalk, and opened a new footbridge. Parks and Recreation workers installed a nine-hole disc golf course on the benchlands in 2012 with the help of the Delaveaga Disc Golf Club, hoping that if sports enthusiasts were there throwing discs, it would dissuade the homeless from hanging out.
Sean O’Neill, president for Delaveaga Disc Golf Club, says the course never got much use, though, for two reasons: design and safety. He says players often found trash and syringes littered about. “It’s not exactly a place that an experienced golfer is looking to play because of its simplicity, and it’s not that inviting. It’s geared more toward a beginner player, and it makes it harder to, say, introduce children to disc golf at a place where you can potentially find needles,” he says.
Right to Sleep
Mills says he made his announcement out of a sense that it’s the right thing to do, both morally and for the good of the whole community.
“My personal belief system—as well as [what] the courts are ruling fairly consistently—[is] that people have a right to sleep,” says Mills, who’s been chief of the Santa Cruz Police Department since August. “And so I want to make sure we are treating people well. I think people are healthier, make better decisions, have the potential of getting out of some of the circumstances they are in, when they have sleep. I couldn’t imagine being in a place where I could sleep for one hour at a time, in the cold with yelling and screaming and all the other things that happen in that environment. Sleeping on rocks, or sidewalks, or bus benches.”
Mills, 60, adds that, at his age, it’s hard enough for him to sleep in a bed.
Adams, who is also executive director of the Warming Center, sees uninterrupted sleep and the allowance of tents as “rung one” of a ladder to improving the homeless situation in Santa Cruz. He’s traveled the state touring homeless encampments three times, interviewing more than 400 people in 40 cities for Out of Sight Out of Mind, his documentary on West Coast homelessness.
“When we demonstrate dignity, people behave in more dignified ways,” says Adams, who also leads the Coalition for Homelessness and the Downtown Bathroom Task Force. “When people are desperate, they start behaving more desperately.”
Mills will be the first to admit that the benchlands encampment is not a beauty to behold. But he says he has been closely following court rulings around homelessness. “And then the courts, and housing and urban development have given some very clear guidelines that you need to have enough beds for those who are without shelter, and until that takes place, I don’t know how I can thoughtfully and rigorously enforce a camping ban,” he says.
Mills has heard that employees working at the county building near the tents haven’t been thrilled by the current situation, and he is aware of the need to maintain a functioning city where everyone feels safe.
Jason Hoppin, Santa Cruz County’s public information officer, says there have been ancillary issues that employees have noticed.
“One of the unfortunate side effects of having that population over here is there is a subset of them that engage in behaviors that are basically unacceptable,” he says. “It’s drug use, it’s public intoxication, it’s prostitution. We’ve had employees that have witnessed those types of activities,” he says, clarifying that such activities aren’t necessarily entwined with the homeless population at large.
“They don’t necessarily go hand in hand. The law-abiding homeless persons who are over there now shouldn’t have to witness that either,” he adds.
The county has added two sheriffs to patrol the area, along with increasing alarm security at the county building. Hoppin says county workers are also in the process of removing two large storage lockers on the back lawn that he says people are hiding things under.
Mills says some of his critics have doubts about his approach, although they don’t always address the chief directly, and that members of Take Back Santa Cruz have been particularly vocal.
“There are those who think I’m enabling,” Mills says. “They want to see rigorous enforcement on the homeless. What does that look like? We’ve written thousands of tickets, literally, for camping. Boy, that’s worked well. I’m much more concerned with effectiveness than efficiency. I can write thousands of tickets, but if it’s not doing any good, then let’s figure out something else to do.”
After Mills’ announcement, one Take Back Santa Cruz member wrote on Facebook, “Poor SanLo park and those families that try and enjoy it.”
Another complained about police officers shooing away some suspicious drugged-out men carrying nice leather purses who he felt should have been questioned. “I give up, no more calling police,” the man wrote, tagging Chief Mills.
Analicia Cube, who started Take Back Santa Cruz nine years ago with her sister and friend who are also mothers, says Mills absolutely got pushback on their site, because many of its 17,000 members are scared and disturbed by the situation, and don’t see the San Lorenzo encampment as a viable alternative.
But what Mills is bringing to the table is at least an attempt at a real solution, she says.
“Our children and our elders are afraid to wander the streets,” Cube says. “We have to just believe. I know it’s going to be really hard for everyone, and I know that after everything we’ve been through, and the compassion fatigue we’re all feeling, that this right here is just another ask. But for the first time, I feel like somebody else is asking me. At least it’s something new, it’s not, ‘oh, it’s OK. Just keep walking, mama. Don’t worry. We’re not headed in the wrong direction …’ Someone in a leadership, authority position is looking me in the eyes and saying, you’re right. This is bad.”
So for now, Mills has Cube’s wary support. “As long as the chief is prepared to show us some positive outcomes and get us to checkmate, then I believe that Take Back Santa Cruz supports him 100 percent,” she says.
This is the kind of dialogue that Mills wants to see. He’s glad that his op-ed piece started a conversation about the issue.
“This battle is taking place of ‘what do we do with these people,’ and some of this is kinda forcing us to have that conversation as a community,” Mills says. “I think people are so entrenched in their minds, they’re not willing to listen about homeless issues. Everybody has their little stake in the ground and if you pull that stake out, you feel like you’re giving ground. Well, that’s not necessarily the case. People say, ‘I want rigorous enforcement.’ Okay, wait a second here … so rigorous enforcement, but just on the homeless, not on everybody else. Now wait a second, that doesn’t make any sense to anybody, does it? It doesn’t to me. We’re going to take one class of people, the poorest of the poor, and we are going to do rigorous enforcement on them?”
As clouds roll in and the rainy season gets underway, no one can say for sure how long the encampment—or the relaxed enforcement—will be around.
If SCPD receives a complaint from a property owner, officers will still enforce the ban on a case-by-case basis. Mills says he is concerned for everyone’s safety, including that of the families who use San Lorenzo Park, especially, up by the playground. And as much as he might mock “rigorous enforcement” for a class of citizen, he says he is certain to employ it for crimes and behavioral issues. “Defecating, urinating, stealing, smoking dope downtown, spreading trash all over the driveway of Wells Fargo, that doesn’t work. I completely get that,” he says.
He’ll also be waiting to see what happens when the winter shelter opens on Nov. 15. If many beds go unused, Mills may take another look at the moratorium. “That changes the perspective a little bit,” he says. “If there’s 100-plus beds and people aren’t taking them, then perhaps enforcement does become a significant option, so people need to avail themselves of the help that’s available to them, and we’ll do everything we can to point people in the right direction.”
Whatever the future of the benchlands in the short term, Bernal says San Lorenzo Park won’t work as a permanent encampment.
“It’s a facility that gets used for events, so people can’t be there all the time anyway. The uses aren’t compatible with what’s there. And it floods in the winter, so it’s not a good long-term solution. We need a more permanent solution. We’re working on that,” Bernal says.
While traveling the West Coast, Adams has seen all kinds of so-called “tent cities”—including ones in areas like Los Angeles, where people are allowed to sleep outside in tents any place that isn’t privately owned.
“The problem with an encampment with no rules, no boundaries and admitted use of illegal addictive substances,” Adams says, “is that there may begin to be dangerous interactions based on the acquisition of substances and the means to afford them, which can include illegal, coercive, and exploitive behavior.”
Adams points out that so far, things at San Lorenzo Park have been surprisingly peaceful and he says the number of overdoses have been declining in the park. He sees the encampment as surprisingly successful, but believes there are ways it could be improved by developing clean, safe and dignifying sanctuary-type camp programs, safe parking programs and authentic, safe sleep zones.
“I applaud the chief, Andy Mills, for all the tents, portapotties, garbage collection, no enforcement of the camping ban. All of those things are amazing, and I celebrate them,” Adams says. “And yet, whether the police department or the city does it or not, this will become uninhabitable at some point. But what is the plan? My organization has lots of plans. Lots of ideas. Can we work with the city on those? I hope so.”
Adams has followed recommendations from the city’s Homeless Coordinating Committee as closely as anyone, getting the word out about the list of 20 ideas and suggesting modifications.
Mills and the county are both on board with the recommendations to get people a day-use facility where the homeless can receive services designed to get them out of homelessness and participate in constructive activities while addressing mental health or addiction as well as hygiene.
The questions are how to do that, and who will foot the bill. The city points to the county and state as typically being providers of health and human services. Hoppin, on the other hand, points to cities like Los Angeles, which set aside $176 million of their own dollars to address their much larger homeless population.
Mark Hemersbach, a 58-year-old Santa Cruz resident of 35 years, has been homeless for two years. He’s been living in a tent at the benchlands for the last six months. “It only took ten days to go from heaven to hell,” he says.
“Relying on the state to pay for everything is somewhat of a fool’s errand,” Hoppin says. “I think there’s going to have to be some skin in the game locally to get this done. We don’t know what the funding formula is going to look like yet, but like I said, it’s a good thing that everybody is moving in the same direction.”
Hoppin, who works with County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios, says he’s still waiting from the city for a clearer indication of the next steps in the process. “We are not alerted to what the city’s plans are, and we still don’t have a handle on what their plans are, what’s their exit strategy here, where this is going. We’ve been meeting with them and asking for that. We don’t have a clear picture yet,” he says, noting that there’s no evidence that homeless people are drawn to services from out of the area.
Palmer, the homeless man who’s been on the streets since being evicted from his apartment, has a Section 8 housing voucher that is set to expire next month. Jenny Panetta, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Housing Authority, said at a meeting last month that about half of voucher holders aren’t able to find housing before their Section 8 expires.
Palmer faces many challenges as he searches, including what to do with his few belongings while he is away from them so that they don’t get stolen. He would like to stay close to his mom in Santa Cruz, but there are fewer low-income housing options in North County, and so he says he will probably have to move to Watsonville.
Storage facilities are one of the short-term fixes that the city’s recommendations identified as a need. Bernal says some steel shipping containers and plastic bins that the city ordered for this purpose have arrived, and they’re being set up on the city’s parcel on River Street that served as a staging center for the winter shelter last year. Adams has been pushing for storage containers in several of the spots where homeless people already congregate to make it easier for them to use the facilities. Adams would also like to see a mobile shower trailer where people can get clean, part of an idea he calls “pop-up homeless services.”
Falling Through the Cracks
Mark Hemersbach, a 58-year-old Santa Cruz resident of 35 years, has been homeless for two years. He’s been living in a tent at the benchlands for the last six months, after what he calls a “set of bad circumstances” involving the collapse of his marble and stone contracting business, he tells me, when a large developer didn’t pay the bills and he didn’t have the resources to fight them in court.
“It only took 10 days to go from heaven to hell,” Hemersbach says. He had 25 employees and had invested his life savings in the company. Hemersbach says that a nearby storage facility would help provide homeless people some peace of mind, while cutting down on theft from a population that doesn’t have much to their name to begin with.
“It would give the people a sense of organization if they can maintain it, and in the end it would give people a little more hope,” he says.
These days, Hemersbach has become something of a mediator among the community benchlands, sometimes settling disputes, and other times organizing morning cleanup efforts to make sure the camp stays as tidy as possible. “We don’t want to be an eyesore for the public,” he says. “We understand this is a park. It’s not supposed to look like a run down beat-up litterbox, and we don’t want it to look that way.”