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Judge lifts injunction on Benchlands homeless camp

A federal judge on Tuesday lifted a preliminary injunction preventing the city of Santa Cruz from removing hundreds of homeless people from San Lorenzo Park, where they have been living since July 2020.

But the order by U.S. District Court Northern District Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen came with the understanding that the city has no immediate plans to evict the residents from the area, also known as the Benchlands.

Attorney Anthony Prince, General Counsel for the California Homeless Union which represents the residents, says that the city had already removed 75 people from the Benchlands when the injunction was put into place on Dec. 30, 2020. That order, he said, kept the residents where they had access to a safe living space and a variety of services.

“We saved lives,” he said. “We persevered.”

“Nowhere else in California or, to our knowledge, anywhere in the country during the pandemic did the homeless win such a decisive, lifesaving, long-running legal victory,” he added. 

In attempting to close the camp and move residents elsewhere, the city has cited numerous problems there, including vandalism, fire safety and criminal activity.

Since it was established in July 2020, however, the city has provided trash service and hygiene resources to the residents.

Homeless Union President Alicia Kuhl says that the ruling was expected.

“Because we aren’t under direct threat of eviction, it didn’t make sense to keep it in place,” she said.

Still, the homeless advocates accomplished the objectives they intended with their advocacy, she added.

“We knew the injunction could not last forever, but we succeeded in stopping the city from destroying the encampment at the height of the pandemic,” she said. “This is our victory because we know we saved lives.”

Kuhl pointed out that evicting the residents would violate CDC guidelines that say providing safe, stable living spaces is the best way to slow the spread of Covid-19 among the homeless population.

In May, the Santa Cruz City Council approved an ordinance that restricts camping in most parts of the city, but requires the establishment of 150 “safe sleeping sites” before the rules can take effect.

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