Is a self-regulated, communal camp the answer to Santa Cruz’s homeless problems?
In dozens of cities across the country, there are organized, self-managed homeless communities—a concept dubbed locally as “sanctuary camps”—that aim to help people pull their lives out of the gutter, get organized, find employment and secure housing.
Local videographer, Occupy activist, and now homeless advocate Brent Adams was inspired to initiate plans for a sanctuary camp in Santa Cruz when he traveled in December of last year to Portland, Ore., where there are two camps—one called “Right 2 Dream Too,” nicknamed “R2DToo,” and another called “Dignity Village.”
Adams, who is collaborating with a group of about 15 people to formulate a public support campaign for such a camp, created a 16-minute documentary called Santa Cruz Sanctuary Camp, and posted it to YouTube about two weeks ago. The video outlines how a variety of sanctuary camps across the nation (of which he estimates there are about 20) are functioning and makes an argument for why they make sense.
“There are models all over the country where these camps are proving successful at making neighborhoods safer while those who use the camps begin to heal their situations,” Adams says.
For the approximately 2,900 individuals who are homeless in Santa Cruz County on any given day, according to the Homeless Census and Survey, there are long waiting periods for fewer than 90 beds available during the spring, summer and fall. And because it’s illegal to sleep in public spaces after 11 p.m., countless homeless are left with no other choice but to engage in “criminal” sleep activity, Adams explains in the film.
He goes on to say that, under those circumstances, homeless often fall into other illegal activities such as drug use like pain-numbing heroin or methamphetamines, which can make people stay awake at night so they can avoid being awakened by police or having their belongings stolen, and so they can protect themselves. These addictions often lead to thievery so they can support their habits.
“The problems of homelessness are exacerbated by the conditions of homelessness,” Adams says.
R2DToo, which has been active since 2011, and Dignity Village, which was formed in 2000, were both co-founded by a homeless man named Ibrahim Mubarak, who is also a spokesman for the Portland camps.
Dignity Village is sanctioned by the City of Portland and located on city property just outside of the business center. The camp hosts about 70 people in sheds and tents. The newer R2DToo, which is on private property, offers homeless people sleeping space in eight hour shifts and hosts about 90 people a day. There are about 25 permanent members who oversee check-ins, security and cleanups, Mubarak explains.
Another common system among homeless camps, like one in Seattle, Wash. called “Nickelsville,” or another in Ann Arbor, Mich. called “Camp Take Notice,” is the itinerant model, relocating every one to three months. The itinerant model relies on land temporarily volunteered by churches, counties and private owners throughout the year.
At this time, Adams says he is not proposing any of these models or a specific location in Santa Cruz, but simply seeking to start a dialogue about the options.
The first and most delicate step, he says, is gaining public and political support. So far, he is doing so by holding weekly meetings for interested residents at 6 p.m. each Wednesday at a warehouse office located near the Coral Street Homeless Services Center. (The exact location can be found at Facebook.com/santacruzsanctuary.)
They are in the initial stages of acquiring nonprofit status and putting together a promotional campaign, which begins with presentations to local faith organizations, neighborhood groups, and political activists. The next step will be official presentations to the Santa Cruz Police Department and the city council, beginning in May, Adams says. He hopes to see a plan for Santa Cruz Sanctuary Camp come to fruition sometime between this summer and next fall.
For Adams, the fact that the YouTube video has received more than 1,200 hits since he posted it on April 16 shows that “people are excited about the concept.”
Santa Cruz City Councilmember Micah Posner is more concerned about the government authorization of such a project. He says a sanctuary camp would be completely illegal as far as building and planning codes go.
“There’s hardly any room at all within the structure of government for a sanctuary camp,” Posner says. “It could be that it matches common sense, but in terms of the city’s vision of what housing is, it doesn’t match it in any way, shape or form.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though,” he adds.
On the chance that the city and community did choose to authorize a sanctuary camp, Councilmember David Terrazas believes finding a location outside the city would make the most sense, so as not to concentrate services within a certain area.
“We need to look at this on a regional basis and engage our county partners in identifying solutions,” Terrazas says.
The basic system, Adams explains, requires a well-defined space, a boundary perimeter with an entrance portal, Porta Potties, dumpster, adequate sleeping arrangements, and a responsible oversight committee. A successful camp would also depend on a close relationship with the community, media and police department, he says.
At a sanctuary camp, organizers can connect homeless people with existing social services and develop a space where the homeless can begin to take care of themselves, Adams says.
At R2DToo, there are a set of five core rules: “No violence to yourself or others, no theft, no drugs or alcohol within a two-block radius, no disruptive behavior, and a minimum of 10 hours of communal service,” Mubarak says.
Adams says quiet hours would also be a key rule, and that a good camp would ideally also feature a food program, showers, laundry, lockers and employment resources.
Mubarak says that providing these services for people who would otherwise be sleeping in the streets is about basic human rights.
“A full night of rest and place to leave their things allows people to get into a healthy life rhythm,” he says. “When you go looking for housing or work, and you’ve got tons of stuff and your clothes aren’t clean, and you look exhausted, you’re not going to get a house or a job.”
While crime associated with the homeless camps in Portland are low, according to Portland Police Lt. Mike Marshman, there are other complications, the most complex being land use and police access to private property.
The fact that R2DToo is on private property places it outside of law enforcement’s regulatory loop, and Marshman questions how many crimes at the camps go unreported.
“It’s somebody’s land, so unless we see a crime being committed, we can’t just go in,” he says.
Mubarak says rules at both camps are enforced—if someone steps out of line, they are required to leave for a period of time—but that they choose not to involve the authorities. “We never call the police,” he says. “We believe in policing ourselves.”
Marshman says this means it becomes a form of loose, communal self-regulation. “That concept, for me, as law enforcement, and for the district attorney’s office, can get messy,” he says.
Back in Santa Cruz, Adams is thinking big. He would like to start a camp for 100 people, and if it works well for a year, expand.
“A lot of people are excited about this and want to see it grow,” Adams says. “[But, at the same time] nobody wants to be a maverick on something like this. It’s almost like a germinating process. It’s got to happen incrementally.”