Santa Cruz police near the end of a campaign to clear out illegal campsites
On a narrow strip of land between Highway 1 and Plymouth Street, Santa Cruz police officers Barnaby Clark, Mike Huynh and Sgt. Dan Flippo fan out as they approach a dingy blue tent with a maroon blanket draped over it.
Huynh draws his gun and holds it ready by his hip as Flippo calls out, “Police! Anybody home?”
Flippo pulls back the tent’s flap and carefully peeks inside while Huynh covers him. No one is home.
As the tension eases, Huynh holsters his weapon.
These three officers form the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) task force whose mission is to eradicate illegal campsites—which many homeless people call home—that are hidden around the city. By the second week of the 30 to 45-day campaign, many of the camps have already been disbanded, says Flippo, a brawny man who has served 20 years with the SCPD.
“A lot of them have caught wind of this and moved out, farther into the county,” he says.
Even so, the officers are very cautious when making contact with a campsite, always entering one with several officers present.
“We don’t know what’s in there,” Huynh says. “If they’re a drug user, they might think there’s someone coming to steal their stash, so they’re going to protect it.”
Huynh, who is in his sixth year with the SCPD, was involved in a physical altercation at a campsite near the San Lorenzo River Levee the week before our interview and had to call for backup.
“You have to be careful because we’re kind of going into someone’s home,” Flippo says.
The SCPD, in partnership with the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation and Public Works Department, began the initiative to crack down on the homeless campsites on July 9 after receiving many new complaints from community members. Neighborhood residents have reported thefts that they think are related to people living at nearby campsites.
In addition to piles of trash left over at the empty encampments, police have also found many stolen bicycle parts. Flippo says homeless campers will often steal bikes, take them apart and sell the pieces to buy drugs.
Fire, sanitation and public safety have also become a growing concern, he says.
When the officers visit a newly reported campsite, they issue a Municipal Code citation and give the campers 72 hours to leave, according to Flippo.
He adds that the work can be frustrating because many of the people living in the camps do not take citations seriously. Many just crumple up the pieces of paper and throw them out, knowing from experience that the court will not issue a bench warrant for an illegal camping infraction.
Santa Cruz City Attorney John Barisone explains that the city adopted an ordinance in 2009 declaring that people who ignore three citations in six months receive a misdemeanor, and the court will issue a warrant for a misdemeanor.
“That will allow the officer to take the person into custody and that person will have to go to court and be arraigned and prosecuted,” Barisone says. “What we’ve learned is that once an individual is arrested and spends a few days in jail, they are immediately aware that there are consequences for their actions, and we either don’t see them again because they change their behavior or they leave town.”
Flippo says that, in reality, the prosecution process is still extremely aggravating. He says even if a perpetrator does go to jail for a few nights, he often runs into them again at other illegal campsites.
“Honestly, there’s not a whole lot of repercussion,” he says. “It’s mostly just an inconvenience for them to have to move their camps.”
Clark says the majority of the people in the camps they have shut down are living this way to distance themselves from law enforcement, engage in criminal activity and feed a drug addiction.
“These are people who are living this lifestyle long-term,” Clark says. “These aren’t people who have been stuck out on the street by circumstance.”
Flippo says he tries to advise homeless campers of resources available for them through the city or county, but that many of them choose not to seek help. Then there are a number of people who cannot utilize resources like soup kitchens because they have caused problems in the past, he says.
After leaving the first site between Highway 1 and Plymouth Street, the officers move on to check out another camp located near The Fishhook, at the point where Highway 1 and Highway 17 diverge. The people at the camp were issued a citation a few days earlier and Flippo wants to make sure they actually left.
Flippo calls the tree-lined space between the two roads “The Triangle.” It was the location of more than 14 campsites the previous week, with anywhere from one to five people living in each.
Seventy-two hours after police issued citations, Cal Trans personnel came in and cleared out the entire area, which Flippo says was covered in human feces and was a major biohazard.
In the middle of the triangle-shaped section of land is an open cement culvert, which Flippo explains flows directly into the ocean.
He motions at it and asks, “Do you surf?”
I say yes.
“Well, trust me,” he says. “Don’t surf the River Mouth. All this flushes down right through there.”
Flippo, who also surfs, has avoided the River Mouth for years because of how much human excrement he discovered was flowing directly into the surf zone.
Despite the task force’s recent efforts, Flippo knows that many of the same people from these campsites will set up new ones in other parts of the county. He has heard there might be a new camp near Dominican Hospital, but that is outside of the SCPD’s jurisdiction.
Some popular campsite hotbeds have included the San Lorenzo River Levee, Pogonip Park, Arana Gulch and Harvey West Park.
While busting campsites, Flippo says that they located some people who had outstanding warrants, including one man camped out in Harvey West who was wanted for three years, a sex offender who had failed to register and another who was in possession of several knives while on a no-weapons probation.
By the third week of the campaign, police identified 86 campsites, issued 178 citations, made 50 arrests and cleared 27 sites, according to Santa Cruz police spokesman Zach Friend. The pilot project will end within the next two weeks, adds Friend, but could be restarted after an evaluation is complete.
Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane understands the need to put a stop to illegal camping due to the immediate problems it causes, but he says it reinforces his own desire to help provide the homeless with legal places to call home.
One way the city is currently attempting to do this is with its 180/180 campaign, which seeks to permanently house 180 vulnerable homeless people.
Phil Kramer, who is the 180/180 campaign project manager, explains that the camps are, in part, a survival mechanism for homeless people. They offer people living on the streets a sense of community and safety in numbers, he says.
While he understands that the police have to do their job, Kramer says that evicting people from these campsites is very much like going into anyone else’s home and making them leave.
“Where ever it may be, our home is our sanctuary,” he says. “It’s our safe place, and that place is really in the eye of the beholder. Some of us have something with sturdy walls, and a well made roof and in-door plumbing. And other people—the place they call home is much more fragile and much more tenuous.”
UC Santa Cruz teacher and homeless advocate Franklin Williams agrees. “We need to not lose sight of all people’s rights and property protections, not just homeowners and businesses,” Williams says.
Lane says it is not clear cut that these people are trying to avoid society so that they can engage in criminal activity, but rather that they are lacking a place in society.
“My question is, are we helping people who are living in those terrible conditions to find a pathway out, or are we just moving them around?” Lane says. “As a community, if we don’t create some opportunity for these folks to live a different way, they’re going to live on the margins. This will be an improvement for our immediate situation, but as far as changing their lives, I think it will take much more.”
Photos: Sal Ingram