Is a verbal agreement and laminated card enough to guarantee clean homeless campsites?
Tucked away in the nooks and crannies of Santa Cruz County, there are perhaps dozens of homeless camps, ranging in size and occupancy, and migrating frequently following busts by authorities. One trait that is invariably associated with these secluded habitats is major biohazard—piles of trash, human waste, and syringes are commonplace.
In an effort to create a safer, more organized, and less environmentally harmful camping system for those living without shelter, local activist and filmmaker Brent Adams—the man behind the campaign for the Santa Cruz Sanctuary Camp—has been distributing “Clean Camp Pledge” cards, which represent a social agreement for homeless campers to keep their spaces clean.
“It gets homeless people to take responsibility for their communities,” Adams says. “It really comes down to personal dignity and self-respect.”
Ultimately, Adams would like to see the community authorize a Sanctuary Camp, where he says homeless people can sleep safely, help support each other and access job training on the condition that they do not use drugs on-site or engage in criminal activity.
However, during the week of Aug. 12 through the 16, local authorities discovered and began the cleanup of one of the most expansive homeless camps in recent years. The site was in a wooded area just north of the Fishhook on Highway 1 where about 50 people were living, accumulating piles of trash, human feces, bicycle parts, and used syringes, as well as cultivating hundreds of marijuana plants. This busted camp does not bode well for the prospect of a community-friendly, self-regulating homeless Sanctuary Camp, says Santa Cruz Police Department Deputy Chief Steve Clark.
The cleanup costs, which are ongoing, are expected to surpass $15,000, he says.
Adams says that when several “messy” camps are discovered, it causes a backlash against the larger homeless camping population, which he says, on the whole, maintains its sites.
Adams has given out about 350 pledge cards to homeless people after they also provided a verbal agreement to the cause for cleanliness—which entails keeping spaces clean, separating waste from water sources, and safely disposing of syringes—and says it is making a difference.
Adams says there are large camps in Pogonip that he has visited where the occupants are carrying out trash and reporting to him on their progress. He says they hang the pledge cards on their tents and around their necks.
He says the cards also encourage clean campers to educate and help other homeless people, especially those who can’t care well for themselves, to keep their spaces sanitary.
Clark is doubtful that the pledge cards make any difference.
“A pledge on a card means nothing to me when you put it in the context of the history we’ve seen,” he says. “Historically, these camps have turned into nothing but a pit of dysfunction and filth. We have yet to see an example where they’re capable of managing themselves in that setting.”
Clark points to the 2011 Occupy Santa Cruz camps in front of the County Building, in which Adams participated, and says that attempts at organization gave way to unsanitary conditions. “I’m concerned that if we go this route [of a Sanctuary Camp], we’re simply going to see another festival of dysfunction,” he says.
But, in Adams’ eyes, the Sanctuary Camp model possesses key differences from the unregulated homeless camps Santa Cruz County has experienced.
“If people understand how a Sanctuary Camp works, they will know how much it can help the whole community,” Adams says. In the meantime, he says the Clean Camp Pledge Card “is just a small thing we really think is having an impact.”