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Santa Cruz Retreats from Homeless Sweep as Protesters Push Back

City manager wants homeless out of San Lorenzo Park by Jan. 6

Protesters and Santa Cruz Police officers exchanged words Monday at San Lorenzo Park. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

The Santa Cruz Police Department has been clearing out an unsanctioned encampment at San Lorenzo Park as part of an organized homeless sweep. But officers pumped the brakes on the second phase of the sweep Monday—after meeting resistance. 

Santa Cruz City Manager Martín Bernal issued an executive order Dec. 17 explaining that the city would clear out the camp by Jan. 6.

Activist Brent Adams says Bernal’s order troubled him, given the lack of available shelter beds and the Covid-19 pandemic, which is surging in California.

“We were blindsided as a community that the city would want to remove that encampment,” says Adams, who runs the Warming Center Program and the Footbridge Services Center.

Santa Cruz city spokesperson Elizabeth Smith says the first phase of evictions began Dec. 21, with sweeps in the southern end of San Lorenzo Park and the adjacent Benchlands. The initial evacuation area stretched from Branciforte Creek to the path that connects the Chinatown Bridge over the San Lorenzo River to Dakota Avenue. 

Monday marked the start of the second phase, when officers were set to start clearing out the area around the park’s duck pond. But protesters showed up with signs bearing written messages like “Stop the Sweep,” as they argued with officers. 

Smith says via email that police chose to postpone the second phase of the park sweeps, “given the number of protesters who were there this morning and the aggressive nature of their conflict with staff.”

Adams, who was at the park this morning, says he saw protesters surround officers from both sides and pin them near the park stage. He credits Santa Cruz Police for not taking out their batons and starting a fight. Instead, they walked to the street and left. He expects them to come back in larger numbers next time.

Adams says he understands that San Lorenzo Park is not in an ideal location for a camp, given its proximity to Hotel Paradox, downtown shops, retirement communities and a playground. Adams has been helping campers relocate to a Harvey West area he calls an “agreement camp,” as it isn’t near any homes, retail or playgrounds. He also hopes that—if the city does not like the blighted look of an unmanaged encampment—that it will support the creation of more managed transitional encampments run by nonprofits.

According to the city of Santa Cruz’s website, phase three of the evictions is scheduled to begin around the lawn bowling green on Jan. 4, and the closure period will end on Jan. 31, unless extended. 

Bernal’s executive order cited fire and public safety reasons for clearing out the San Lorenzo Park camp. It also added that residents of the camp hadn’t been following social distancing rules in accordance with best practices meant to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. But ever since the state and county health leaders laid out shelter-in-place orders in March, officials made clear that the regulations did not apply to the homeless population.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) went so far over the summer as to advise against breaking up encampments.

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” the CDC’s website states. “This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

Additional reporting by Mat Weir.

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