Clinton Hubbard had already had one laptop, three skateboards and countless other reminders of his former life stolen when he moved to the camp on River Street last year.
By the time Andi Reyes moved with Hubbard to a blue and gray, city-provided tent, she had outrun an abusive relationship and lost the truck that offered her only shield from life on the street.
If the barbed wire on the fence that walled off the River Street camp from the Harvey West neighborhood of Santa Cruz wasn’t exactly welcoming—“like a prison,” Hubbard recalls—the pair was happy to have some stability after six months of bouncing between shelters and sleeping outside. While Hubbard spent his days trying to stay clean after leaving his Bay Area hometown to get away from drug contacts, Reyes was busy piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of soup kitchens, housing ledes and other resources.
“Being on the streets, there’s a huge sense of hopelessness,” says Hubbard, 25, which is compounded when “normies” insult you after you ask for their leftovers outside a restaurant.
Hear that you’re scum enough, says Reyes, 27, and it’s easy to think, “Fine, I’ll just be the person you want me to be.”
But the River Street camp was supposed to be a reprieve from all that. With cities from Seattle to Sacramento debating sanctioned encampments, navigation centers, tiny houses and other ways to respond to increasingly acute homelessness amid unprecedented housing costs, the city of Santa Cruz committed roughly $90,000 a month starting last February to run the camp while they planned a new year-round shelter. Several blown deadlines and ugly public meetings later, the city closed the camp in November with no long-term plan in sight.
“It’s pretty unbelievable how much somebody’s life can change with food, shelter—even if it’s short term—and hygiene,” says Susie O’Hara, a water engineer turned assistant to Santa Cruz City Manager Martín Bernal. O’Hara has become the city’s de facto lead on homelessness after a series of roles focused on public safety.
Hubbard and Reyes were among those who went straight from the camp to more stable housing, at a sober living environment with county financial assistance. Some of their former River Street neighbors are in rehab or at the city’s winter shelter in Live Oak. Others are back on the street, where a large new unsanctioned camp has taken shape just down River Street, often called the “Ross Camp” for its location behind the discount store near the mouth of Highway 1.
Despite the anti-climactic end to the River Street camp, the next year holds promise to bring more challenges to the status quo. Homelessness and affordable housing were central campaign issues in a progressive wave in the November Santa Cruz City Council elections. The county is also preparing to request proposals for how to spend an anticipated $10 million in new state funding expected to come through in March.
In the process, advocates for more immediate action are hoping that local government agencies that sometimes struggle to work together will seize the opportunity to consider alternatives to traditional top-down programming.
“We need to be needs-oriented, rather than funding-oriented,” says Brent Adams. In addition to running the nonprofit Warming Center’s overflow winter shelter programs in Santa Cruz and Watsonville, Adams started a free storage service last year for homeless residents—all with an annual budget around $65,000, which he presents as proof that the city could spend a lot less to achieve a lot more.
Coming to a consensus on where to go from here isn’t just a nice New Year’s resolution. It’s a necessity, since the infusion of state dollars will come with an expiration date.
“It’s very important that everybody be kind of in line,” says Santa Cruz County spokesman Jason Hoppins. “If you don’t use it within two years, you lose it.”
A New Approach
The city of Santa Cruz didn’t set out to become the operator of an outdoor homeless shelter. Last winter, O’Hara embarked on a search for a partner organization to run the River Street camp. After she says that no local organization had the capacity to hire what would eventually total 25 mostly part-time employees, it was O’Hara and the camp’s primary day-to-day leader, Chris Monteith, who hired staff, bought equipment and arranged for infrastructure like showers.
“When we tried to find somebody to run the camp, a nonprofit, we envisioned it running for four months,” O’Hara says of the camp that was ultimately open for about nine months.
A total of 86 people, ages 20-75, stayed at the camp, O’Hara says. More than a third of them went on to longer-term housing, veterans’ residences or rehab facilities, and a small handful opted to return home to other places. Most residents had lived in the area for an extended period before moving to the camp.
Hubbard and Reyes met all kinds of people living at the camp and on the street. One was a monk. Some were moms or dads scraping by with their adult children. Many were locals who couldn’t afford to stay, but never left.
“All generalizations are false, including this one,” Hubbard says, quoting Mark Twain and hinting at his days studying political science. Still, he says, “The general trend is that people couldn’t keep up with the rent, but they were too in love with their hometown to leave.”
On a recent afternoon outside a coffee shop on Pacific Avenue, near his job at the Homeless Garden Project’s holiday store, Hubbard talks about how he’d like to go back to school, and how he wishes the city would act on promising ideas like tiny homes. Reyes, a former anthropology major, is right there with him talking about “project-based vouchers” and other jargon gleaned from navigating a maze of social programs. (Though the two bicker like any couple about cutting each other off when they get excited, they define their relationship as “best friends.”)
The River Street camp was sometimes alienating with its multi-layer security and designated vans to shuttle residents in and out—a “nanny camp,” Adams calls it—but the guarantee of dinner, storage and other on-site services was much better than the street to pursue a steady job or permanent housing. Hubbard, Reyes and advocates like Adams all suggest that the camp could have been run cheaper, maybe allowing it to stay open longer: less intense security, no stadium-style all-night lighting, or maybe fewer homier touches, like sleeping mats. Order and security, however, were always central selling points of the public plan.
Now, Reyes worries about the growing number of fancy cars she sees around town, and a general decline of the weirdness that animates Santa Cruz. She’s comparing the city to gentrification she lived through in San Francisco when a young park ranger strolls by in his neat olive green uniform. He recognizes her and Hubbard instantly, and Reyes tells him they moved off the street.
“I’m glad you guys are doing well,” the ranger says earnestly.
“He’s one of the good ones,” Reyes explains as he walks away—as opposed to the rangers and police officers who wrote Hubbard $1,000 in camping fines during his months on the street.
Though the Santa Cruz Police Department recently told GT that the city stopped enforcing a local camping ban after a state Supreme Court decision ruled such measures unconstitutional, Hubbard says he still gets regular letters about the debt. The city of Santa Cruz also closed several local parks this fall, citing maintenance and “public safety.”
On a gray morning the week before Christmas, a standing-room-only crowd of local government brass, homeless services providers and a smattering of the people who rely on those services gathered at the gated Coral Street compound of the Homeless Services Center.
Just down the block from the former River Street camp, the group has assembled to remember the 55 people, ages 27-77, who died without a home in the county during 2018. Over the hum of an industrial refrigerator, with tissue boxes pulled every so often from a bright yellow pantry, people take turns sharing stories about “Tiger” and “Harmony Grits” and others whose legal names and ages at the time they died are written on player flags above a folding table altar.
“The average over the past 10 years has been 36,” county public health nurse Matt Nathanson, who has organized the memorial for 20 years, says of the rising death toll. A brief report printed on purple paper lists acute drug and alcohol intoxication as the leading causes of death (16), followed by trauma like being hit by a car or drowning (7) and cardiac issues (7). While roughly equal numbers died outside or in a medical facility, another 10 percent were in temporary locations like motels. One death certificate just said, “a shack.”
“We need to do a better job. Full stop,” said Phil Kramer, executive director of the Homeless Services Center.
It’s not that there aren’t proposals on the table. Both the city and the county have produced multiple detailed reports in recent years with laundry lists ways to improve outreach and offer more resources. Each time, a familiar roadblock surfaces.
“We don’t have the facilities to address the issue,” Hoppin says.
At the top of the county’s list of priorities are two “navigation centers” offering year-round shelter and access to social services, one in North County and one in South County. The new $10 million from the state could be one way to finally get the projects underway, Hoppin says.
Still, it’s deciding on specifics that have historically been the problem. Though Adams says he’s secured real estate for his programs through clear plans and ongoing dialogue with neighbors, O’Hara expects that the site selection conversation will remain “one of the most challenging.” Just look at the Measure H county affordable housing bond that voters defeated in November, she says, which would have provided $21 million for homeless facilities.
“That’s pretty devastating,” O’Hara says. “That was really something that we were banking on.”
For people on the street, like Hubbard and Reyes once were, the false starts translate to a roller coaster of camps and seasonal shelters and stints outside. With their current housing assistance set to expire in February, they’re just hoping to stay off the ride.