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If Kicking Out the Homeless Doesn’t Work, What’s Next?

The city and county’s managed camp is working—but its impact is limited, and its time may be ending

Santa Cruz Fire Chief Jason Hajduk addresses city, county, state and federal officials, wrapping up a socially distanced tour of parks and homeless impacts. PHOTO: JACOB PIERCE

This is part five of a series on the health impacts of homelessness. Part six runs Nov. 4. —Editor

At 27 years old and homeless for the third time, Mark Matthews was spending his nights in a parking lot on the corner of Laurel and Front streets until Santa Cruz police and city workers broke down the encampment at the beginning of October. 

Downtown outreach workers handed out phone numbers about shelter options, but when he tried calling those numbers, Matthews learned that there weren’t enough beds for everyone who had been staying at the camp, he says. So Matthews moved his tent up to the San Lorenzo River levee just around the corner from the parking area, known as Lot 27. He fully expects Santa Cruz officials to move him and his friends again soon. He just doesn’t know when.

“It’s almost like they forgot about us again,” says Matthews, who lost his job in March, just before Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns began their economic damage.

Matthews says that between the pandemic and the chaos created by recent fires, his current bout of homelessness has been his toughest yet. 

Last month, an executive order from City Manager Martín Bernal announced the Lot 27 sweep, citing social distancing problems, “nuisance” conditions and food handling violations by the volunteer group Food Not Bombs, which was serving hot meals. Food Not Bombs has since set up across the street, in Lot 23. The city has since granted Food Not Bombs a permit to stay through at least the end of October.

Meanwhile, a few tents remain on the levee paths, known as the San Lorenzo Riverwalk. They aren’t without impacts, says Greg Pepping, the executive director of the Coastal Watershed Council.

Pepping explains that it creates a dirtier river when such camps go unmanaged, meaning that they don’t have bathrooms, places to wash up or trash pickup. He also says that when campers block the path, it deters others from enjoying the beauty of the river.

“It’s a public path. And we don’t have a solution for homelessness,” he says. “I hope we can keep a bike and pedestrian path open for everybody, not for a few people.” 

ROAM AT LAST

Santa Cruz City Manager Martín Bernal says that, given the large unsheltered population, police officers and parks officials often end up moving homeless people and their impacts from one part of town to another.

“What we end up doing is herding people from one place to another—which is not a solution,” Bernal tells me as he stands outside the new managed homeless camp at San Lorenzo Park, just after wrapping up a tour of local parks with other local government officials.

That approach creates an ever-shifting calculus: If law enforcement breaks up one encampment, will the aftermath just create a bigger headache somewhere else?

Recent fire evacuations have already pushed many homeless residents out of the Santa Cruz Mountains and into the city of Santa Cruz. Additionally, it’s unclear how the destruction of 900 homes in a county already dealing with a housing crisis will affect homelessness. Not only that, but the threat posed by fire risk prompted the city to push homeless residents out of the meadow-laden Pogonip greenspace, Bernal says.

Although it’s surrounded by unsanctioned camps, the San Lorenzo Park Benchlands’ newly managed encampment—overseen jointly by the city and Santa Cruz County—is, by all accounts, going well. As the Oct. 9 tour wraps up, a man walking his bike stops by to thank everyone who made the camp a reality. “This camp is helping me out a lot. I’m 62, true-born American. I just want to get off the street,” he says.

But the current setup won’t last forever. Honestly, it may not last much longer.

The county is spending temporary coronavirus relief money on the camp. Also, the camp will have to move elsewhere once the rain starts, as it is in a floodplain. 

BE RESOURCEFUL

In her closing remarks as the tour wraps up, Santa Cruz City Vice Mayor Donna Meyers pleads with government leaders to step up and bring in more resources.

She points her remarks mostly toward state Assemblymember Mark Stone and congressman Jimmy Panetta, who are both in attendance. But her overall message is clear—that Santa Cruz is doing its fair share of helping and managing the homeless, and then some.

Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, a former Santa Cruz mayor, speaks next, and he stresses that the county is also already doing a lot, having doubled the number of shelter beds locally in the past six months.

The past few recent years have been marked by city and county officials trading barbs as they try to shift responsibility for homeless issues to one another, but that’s not happening now, they say. As staffers and elected officials trickle out of the park following the tour, I awkwardly insert myself into Meyers and Coonerty’s conversation. They both tell me that the keys going forward will be a different approach to problem-solving and an even higher level of collaboration between the city and the county.  

Both Meyers and City Manager Bernal stress that many homeless services are currently centered in the city of Santa Cruz, and they feel that creates challenges. The city, however, could be getting more services before long, per the recommendations laid out by the Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness, which suggested there be a new homeless navigation center in Santa Cruz’s Harvey West neighborhood. 

Bernal says he supports that approach. But he also thinks there should be additional navigation centers in Mid-County and in South County, something he thinks he remembers reading in a recent Santa Cruz County plan. 

Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin tells me the county’s plan actually calls for just two navigation centers, one in the northern end of the county and the other at the county’s southern end.

Phil Kramer, executive director of the Housing Matters shelter and services campus, says what’s clear is that people who live outside are struggling.

In a statement to GT, Kramer explains that he sometimes wonders if a lack of community or political will is limiting the rollout of further services. In any case, he says it’s time for everyone to step up and pitch in.  

“All I know is that we have hundreds of people sleeping outside right now all over town and winter is coming and everyone needs to step up and do more. Every agency, every community member, everyone,” he states. “The status quo is so harmful to both the people sleeping outside and to the community dealing with the impacts of so many people sleeping rough all around the community. Write to elected officials and tell them that you don’t want unmanaged camping scattered all over the place. Tell them you want people sleeping outside to have a safe, healthy, managed place to go—and that you want the safe, managed sites to be in thoughtfully-selected sites that will work for the housed and unsheltered residents in our community. And then, when a site is proposed in your neighborhood, say, ‘Let’s manage it well and make it work.’”    

Additional reporting by Mat Weir.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Joey

    October 21, 2020 at 7:55 pm

    Great , just blame the defenseless and poor for all the problems. You listen to rushlimbo, that guy is great at blaming others, your just repeating what he says. What do you really think????

  2. Chelsea Wagner

    October 21, 2020 at 6:08 am

    The lack of housing is endemic of all of California. And the issue has been driven by the lure of low wage workers. Mostly from south of the US border. Businesses can hire these workers for less and treat them with less respect than they would US. People lured by better wages than in their home country are happy to weather the abuse. With 2 1/2 million of them in California it is no wonder that we have a lack of housing yet with only 125k homeless it would only take a reduction of 10% off them to provide twice as many homes needed to house all of our homeless. If businesses were better discouraged not to break the law it would be easier to balance the needs of our poor with our housing providers. People should direct our energies were it will do the most good. Push for increased penalties on businesses whom hire and abuse these workers as well as reducing the ease and incentive for workers to migrate here. This is the quickest way to provide housing for those of us whom need it most.

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