Byron Beasley has been crashing at the camp between Highway 1 and the Ross department store on and off over the past week, after hearing about it via word of mouth. He finds the other campers friendly, the camp itself dirty and the constant drug use disturbing.
“It’s good in some ways, but it’s really depressing. There’s a constant ruckus,” Beasley says on a recent afternoon as the sun descends behind the huddle of tents.
Beasley, 27, is known around the camp as “Alabama,” after his home state. When his family kicked him out of the house back home, Beasley’s stepmother, who used to live in Santa Cruz, offered to buy him a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to the West Coast. He took her up on it.
Beasley notes that the Ross camp has just seven portable toilets and no showers. Campers can often be seen washing their faces and hair in the plastic sinks by the camp. He suggests that maybe the camp council, a group of residents who’ve managed the camp challenged the evictions, could have outside group step up and run the camp.
The status of the camp has been unclear for more than a week. After failed mediation sessions in San Jose, a federal judge ruled Monday that the city of Santa Cruz could proceed with evictions. Santa Cruz has been planning to reopen a city-run camp at 1220 River St. in May to supplement shelter options, though critics of the city’s approach have asked if the 60 tents in that camp will even come close to meeting the need. City Manager Martín Bernal wrote in a March 25 letter that the Ross camp’s overnight population was about 100, maybe less. Some activists, campers and councilmembers have pegged the true number at double that or more.
With its closure presumably around the corner, here’s a list of five things to know about the Ross camp and homelessness in Santa Cruz.
1. IT’S A SAFETY RISK
As of this past Thursday, the fire department had been called to the camp 88 times since Nov. 1. There have been three fires, including one that destroyed a tent. None have spread from one tent to the next, which is lucky, says Fire Chief Jason Hajduk, given that so many tents are squeezed tightly against one another. Many have tarps strung over them, often making it unclear where one tent ends and another begins. “The potential is great for fire to spread from one to another without interruption,” he says.
Hajduk has called the camp “a recipe for disaster,” in part because of the cooking and heating devices that campers operate in their tents, against the fire department’s advisement. Many campers have also lifted their tents onto wooden pallets, which could pose additional fire hazards, especially now that the weather’s heating up.
The pallets have also created a rat habitat. Santa Cruz County Health Officer Arnold Leff has warned that the camp could be susceptible to a disease outbreak that could spread to the community at large. In a March 9 letter, he advocated for City Council to close the camp as soon as possible.
2. IT’S HOME
Desieire Quintero, who’s lived at the Ross camp for going on half a year, says it wasn’t her idea to move in. She says she had been living in the Pogonip when a team of firefighters, park rangers and police officers came by her tent this past November and told she would have to clear out because of fire danger. She says they suggested that she try camping in the Ross camp. “I didn’t want to be out here. It was a situation that made me come out here, but I’m not ashamed,” she says.
One of the plaintiffs in the federal case against the city, Quintero says the camp has its issues, but she feels law enforcement and county health employees could better work to get involved with cleaning the camp without kicking everyone out. In the encampment, residents say they look out for one another.
“There’s some assholes here,” Quintero says. “Every barrel has a few bad apples, but the majority of people here are good people. This is the safest place you can come right now. Any woman who’s homeless can come here right now, and we’ll find a spot for them because this is the safest place for them to be.”
3. IT DOESN’T COME CHEAP
Clean-ups and day-to-day responses to homelessness can run up a big tabs.
The city of Santa Cruz has seen an increase in costs related to dealing with homelessness day-to-day over the past year, according to Finance Director Marcus Pimentel. He says the police, fire department and parks department all ran up significant costs. “The level of service—police, service, overtime—was totally unexpected,” he says.
Of course, not every dollar can be traced back to the Ross camp, but as of early April, Pimentel was projecting that the city would see a budget shortfall of $300,000-$600,000 to close out the current fiscal year, which wraps up at the end of June. That’s despite a sales tax approved nearly a year ago to boost general fund revenue.
There have been a number of overruns, many of them capital improvement projects, like improvements to West Cliff Drive, the Lifeguard Headquarters on the wharf and a restaurant at DeLaveaga Park.
Pimentel and City Manager Martín Bernal say the city will likely face a budget shortfall of more than $2 million in the next fiscal year.
The good news is that there’s now more money to go around to hopefully fund solutions in the future. This spring, the county’s Homeless Action Partnership, a coalition of nonprofit government leaders, announced the recipients of $10.6 million in funding, with allotments ranging from $1.4 million to purchase land for new facilities to $44,471 for the Smart Path to Housing and Health coordinated entry system.
4. A BETTER MODEL MAY BE IN THE WORKS
With an eye toward cost, some activists are pushing for transitional encampments that would be partly run by volunteers and campers themselves. It’s an idea that the city’s currently studying.
According to information compiled by volunteers for the nonprofit Warming Center, transitional models in Eugene and Seattle have been successful in getting campers into housing at a fraction of the cost of a more strictly managed approach, like the government-run camp that the city of Santa Cruz plans to reop at 1220 River St.
5. SANTA CRUZ IS NOT AS DIVIDED AS IT SEEMS
It often sounds like every group in Santa Cruz is miles apart on issues of homelessness. That may not be the case.
All the infighting at City Council meetings may be obscuring an almost-forgotten reality. There’s actually a significant amount of buy-in right now to tackle homelessness, making this moment potentially a very big one.
It was less than two years ago that Santa Cruz’s Homelessness Coordinating Committee came back with recommendations that were largely praised by homeless advocates at the time. And a homelessness committee made up of Mayor Martine Watkins, Vice Mayor Justin Cummings and county supervisors Ryan Coonerty and Bruce McPherson has been meeting regularly.
The Santa Cruz County Business Council even took a recent vote to weigh in on the topic. The business council’s position acknowledged that temporary shelters and encampments can be “important and perhaps necessary in specific instances,” but the council suggested that leaders prioritize collaboration, housing the homeless and building a navigation center to help the most needy access services.
The Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce similarly supports new shelters that are more compatible with other social services.
Casey Beyer, the chamber’s CEO, is ready to see change. He says that he sees more compassion than leadership from local governments. He compares them to people who keep hitting their heads against a wall and then ask why they’re feeling unwell.
“Holistically, the community at large wants to do something to help, and they’re looking for a solution that people can get behind. I ask myself, ‘Where’s that leader?’” Beyer asks. “Can you think of a leader that wants to put their arms around homelessness and take ownership of solutions we all can support? There isn’t one.”