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Environmentalist’s Take on the San Lorenzo River Homeless Camps

Coastal Watershed Council leader on Santa Cruz’s homeless impacts

Residents of a managed homeless camp at San Lorenzo Park have made their tents feel like home. PHOTO: JACOB PIERCE

[This is part five of a series about the health impacts of homelessness. – Editor]

It was three years ago now that the first large-scale encampment popped up on the San Lorenzo Park Benchlands—in the shadow of the Santa Cruz County Government Center and above the banks of the San Lorenzo River.

The camp both started and grew with the blessing of Santa Cruz city leaders, including Police Chief Andy Mills. At the time, however, Coastal Watershed Council (CWC) Executive Director Greg Pepping told me he thought the camp had negative environmental consequences and that it ran counter to efforts to activate the levee path system, known as the San Lorenzo Riverwalk. “Maybe this encampment is the right idea, but it’s in the wrong place,” Pepping said in 2017.

In the three years since, Santa Cruz has seen plenty of similar encampments in the San Lorenzo River watershed, including a controversial camp behind the Ross department store in early 2019 and another short-lived one toward the end of the year. Now, there is a managed camp—overseen jointly by the city and county—in the same spot where the old Benchlands camp once was. Additionally, there are unmanaged homeless camps on the Riverwalk and along the banks of the river itself as well.

We recently checked in with Pepping to see what he thinks of the current encampments, what has changed in the past three years, and what hasn’t.

When we spoke in 2017, the initial Benchlands encampment had only been around for a little more than a month. Do you remember how you felt at the time?

GREG PEPPING: For that first one, I thought it was not the place for people to camp. My thoughts have evolved on it a lot.

How has your thinking changed?

I realized that, as a community, we don’t have any solutions for meeting people’s needs. Not complete solutions, anyway. So parks are a part of the solution, I think. We were totally against it, and now we see parks as a possibility when they are managed well. Managed camps are the key, meaning people’s needs are met.

That current managed encampment on the Benchlands is fenced in. It has bathrooms and other facilities. So is that one going well from your perspective?

I toured it recently. It’s an excellent example of meeting people’s needs and using a park to do so.

What about the other camps—the ones along the levees, for instance, and closer to the river and near the Soquel Avenue bridge?

Those are not managed from what I can see. There are no sanitary services. There’s not trash pickup that seems to be working. It’s a very different situation. The managed camp meets people’s needs and protects the river. It’s not either/or. It’s not people or the river. That managed camp is an example of how we can balance these things.

What negative impacts do unmanaged camps have on the environment?

Trash, needles, people relieving themselves in the river. I’m careful not to criminalize homelessness, but sometimes there’s really aggressive behavior when people are allowed to do whatever they want right on the path or right down by the river.

How does that aggressiveness manifest itself? Why is it bad?

And I’m talking about the aggressiveness of some people. Last week alone, five different people—donors, volunteers, people who walk the river—told me they felt threatened by those sitting on the path. And these aren’t people who look down on people experiencing homelessness. Five different people told me they were uncomfortable and might not come back to the river. It’s a public path. And we don’t have a solution for homelessness. I hope we can keep a bike and pedestrian path open for everybody, not for a few people.

What about the Ross Camp last year? Leaders of that camp indicated it had some level of internal structure, and it gave homeless people a sense of community, but there was certainly dysfunction as well—including litter impacts and a decent amount of controversy. What did you think of how that saga played out and wrapped up?

That was quite a mixed bag, because it was unmanaged, and then there was an attempt to manage it, and then there was a legal battle. So there’s a lot to say around that one. It seemed to me that the city and the county learned a fair amount on jointly operating that type of operation. What CWC asks for is that, where there’s a campsite, the city and the county communicate on who’s doing what. And we ask that the neighborhood and the environment be protected from the impacts of the campsite. And we ask that there be a limit to the scope of it—that the footprint be limited, so we know what’s the campsite and what’s not.

You recently wrapped up a four-year term on the Santa Cruz Planning Commission. What role can the city or the county play in reducing homelessness?

That’s a pretty hard question to answer in a soundbite. We need a long-term strategy, and we need to take immediate steps, so it’s a combination. The main thing that I keep saying is that it’s a false choice to choose between protecting the environment and meeting people’s needs. It’s a false choice to choose between people and the river. We can protect the river and meet people’s needs.

Do you have anything to add?

We’re really striving to be an environmental organization that shows that we appreciate human beings. We honor the dignity of people experiencing homelessness. We say ‘hi’ to people camping by the river. We think about their perspectives. I try very hard to make sure, when I’m sticking up for the river, that I care about people and that people get that. That’s one piece that I try to make sure comes through. Again, I don’t think it’s either/or.

The other thing is that we—as a community, as residents asking the city and the county to solve these problems—need to remember that we’re part of the solution. And the city doesn’t have a homelessness budget or a homelessness department. The city does public safety. And the county does mental health and public health and environmental health. So it is a joint effort. That fenced-in camp in the Benchlands is a county operation in a city park. Now, not all substance abuse and mental health is related to homelessness, but unfortunately some of it is. All substance abuse and mental health issues in the city are county issues. All of this stuff requires city and county cooperation. It really is an opportunity for local leaders to demonstrate how they can work together. And even then, it won’t be easy. So I just try to remind myself—and others—who has the budget here and who has the leadership opportunity and how it’s a shared one. I always try to convey that complexity to people.

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