Ross homeless Camp Sonny Deserei
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Overheard at Santa Cruz’s Biggest Homeless Camp

A 200-person tent city is in legal limbo

Sonny Lopez (left) and Desieire Quintero are part of a 10-person organizing committee that has formed at Santa Cruz's Ross Camp. PHOTO: LAUREN HEPLER

On the afternoon before the fate of her adopted home will be decided by a judge, Desieire Quintero takes a break to slice open an M&M candy bar with the buck knife she keeps on her hip.

It’s been five months since Quintero and a small band of others moved to the sliver of public land between Highway 1 and the Ross discount store on the fringe of downtown Santa Cruz. She and some other homeless residents say that law enforcement told them to move there last fall, after a wildfire broke out in the area where they used to live in the Pogonip forest near UCSC.

LIFE OUTSIDE Residents estimate that up to 250 people have called the Ross Camp home, creating a need for cleaning shifts and organization.

LIFE OUTSIDE Residents estimate that up to 250 people have called the Ross Camp home, creating a need for cleaning shifts and organization. PHOTO: LAUREN HEPLER

In recent weeks, residents estimate that the Ross Camp has peaked at around 250 people, plus tents, tarps, pets, and a wide array of other belongings. The group won an unexpected legal victory earlier this week, when a court granted a restraining order barring the city from shutting the camp down and moving residents to the familiar “benchlands” of San Lorenzo Park.

Ahead of a Friday court hearing to decide the fate of the Ross camp, GT spoke to residents about how they got there, what the space means to them and where they may go from here.

TROOP MOM Desiere Quintero, or "Mama Desi," says she worked as a firefighter and housekeeper before she and her son lost their home in Live Oak. PHOTO: LAUREN HEPLER

CAMP MOM Desieire Quintero, or “Mama Desi,” says she worked as a firefighter and housekeeper before she lost her home in Live Oak. PHOTO: LAUREN HEPLER

“I worked my butt off, you know, to raise my children, to put a roof over their heads, without no support from anybody except for my friends and my colleagues. Now I’m by myself, and I can’t afford to pay $3,000 a month for rent. It’s like maybe this is the purpose I was put here for. I don’t know. It’s better than being out there by yourself as far as I’m concerned. They fear us, but there’s nothing to fear.”

         — Desieire Quintero

“It’s progress. Slowly but surely. Like I said, it’s a 24/7 job. You have individuals that do the midnight shift. You have individuals on the morning shift that are cleaning light debris, making paths through the tents or whatever. I was amazed how they did it.”

         — Sonny Lopez

LONG ROAD After 23 years in Santa Cruz County, Kentucky native Michael Sweatt says he's considering leaving the area.

LONG ROAD After 23 years in Santa Cruz County, Kentucky native Michael Sweatt says he’s considering leaving the area. PHOTO: LAUREN HEPLER

“I grew up without a family, really. The dysfunctional family I had, I was the grown up from a young age, like 7. I never really had a childhood, and I still haven’t had one. It doesn’t bother me, but I hate when grown ups act like kids and I can’t. You know what I’m sayin? That makes me jealous. It’s like you guys can sit on city council and argue with each other about what so-and-so said at lunch like little kids, but as soon as I start actin like one, everybody wants to call the police.”

          — Michael Sweatt

“People have been very friendly. Can you please put that down? In the week that I’ve been here, people have been warm and welcoming. Supportive, I guess. People have really tried to make me feel—not accepted, but welcome. I was born here, but I don’t have a place to live here.”

          — Michelle Parker

WHAT NEXT? A restraining order against the city of Santa Cruz granted to residents of the Ross homeless camp is posted throughout the camp site.

WHAT NEXT? A restraining order against the city of Santa Cruz granted to residents of the Ross homeless camp is posted on trash cans, portable toilets and other available space. PHOTO: LAUREN HEPLER

“There’s no out-of-the box thinking. This is Santa Cruz. Aren’t we artisans and shit? I was born in California, raised in L.A. My son was born here, at Dominican, and went to Scotts Valley High. If another person who’s been here for five years tells me that I can’t afford to live here, I’m gonna scream. Don’t tell me to move because you wanna live here and raise the rent.”

          — Shannan Vudmaska

“You know, history is pretty cool. In like the 1900s, they had a tent city across from the Boardwalk. They had like 200 tents. Everybody living in a little tent with a little bed, a little nightstand, water, and a toilet. I dunno, I guess there wasn’t as much, like, drug abuse then, but if it worked back then, why wouldn’t it work now? Just let us do our job. It seems to me like people don’t really care.”

          — Jeremy Barker

ROLLING ON Longtime Santa Cruz resident Dan Moreno says that family instability and stereotypes about drug abuse often complicate prospects for getting off the street.

ROLLING ON Longtime Santa Cruz resident Dan Moreno says that family instability and stereotypes about drug abuse often complicate prospects for getting off the street. PHOTO: LAUREN HEPLER

“I used to be a general contractor. Right now I’m trying to do some gardening with a high school buddy. It’s hard when you don’t have a truck and you don’t have the tools and stuff. We all have our stories of why we’re out here … It’s not so much the space as it is standing our ground, you know, and not being pushed around anymore. Feeling like an invisible entity that (the city) is getting money to deal with, and then they don’t want to deal with us. I’ve lived here almost all my life, at least 54 years of it.”

          — Dan Moreno

“I mean I understand there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but this is no way to attract tourism.”

          — Anonymous

Managing Editor at |

Lauren Hepler is the managing editor of Good Times and a reporter covering cities, jobs and housing—plus the occasional sports or agriculture story required of all Ohio natives. She has contributed to the New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Slate. Lauren was previously on staff at the Silicon Valley Business Journal and is a graduate of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. Henry Clovis

    August 2, 2019 at 3:31 pm

    This wasn’t an expensive beach town until quite recently when an in flux of money came from over the hill and along with it a more property-oriented, conservative attitude. many long term local families were forced to move out of houses and neighborhoods because they could no longer afford the growing expenses. Many people didn’t have the monetary savings to make any move but onto the street and as expensive as Santa Cruz now is, it is still their town and its hard to leave a place full of memories, experiences and deep roots. Even harder when thrust on the street unexpectedly and then every day is spent just trying to survive, because for all the help and “enabling” it’s still incredibly hard, frustrating, scary and demeaning living outside.
    Next time you see a homeless person, smile and say hello to them, you night be surprised at the change in their behavior and attitude with just a little positive acknowledgment from a society to whom they once belonged, but now shuns them .

  2. Lumpus Lupus

    May 19, 2019 at 9:09 pm

    This is what happens when the voting public votes Democrat. The Left is not about helping people, people legal to be in US. It’s about their staying in power keeping those people down.

  3. Kira M.

    May 1, 2019 at 10:52 am

    I appreciate this article, despite being very frustrated with the homeless in Santa Cruz. I used to live on Riverside Avenue when the San Lorenzo camp was up, and we had needles and urine/feces in our yard every morning, people screaming in the streets between 1 and 4am most mornings, many things stolen from our yard and porch, trash and personal belongings left on the sidewalks daily. I was barely scraping by as a grad student and working full time, paying $2200 for a small apartment with my husband, and it was hell living by the SL encampment. I was recently in World Market in the River Street complex and I watched a guy come in, walk to the food section, fill his pockets with food items and stroll right out of the store and back to the camp because he knew the company has a no-chase policy. BUT, I say I appreciate the article because no matter how pissed I get at the law-breaking, careless, and rude homeless in this town, my anger won’t make them go away. We have to try and understand them to try to help them and/or at least stop the portion of them with destructive behaviors. I also think it would be nice is if I ever heard a homeless person seem grateful to the armies of people in Santa Cruz who do work on their behalf, pick up their trash, provide them food, toilets, and sanitation, and pay TONS of taxes to provide what we do in Santa Cruz, even if it doesn’t feel like enough. For goodness sake, homeless are coming to SC for a reason – while not perfect, we are one of the most homeless-friendly communities in the country. Can they give back a little, instead of only complain? Especially while many citizens/businesses are suffering from the actions of some of the homeless?

  4. John Kevin Rothwell

    April 28, 2019 at 9:03 pm

    Wow, a calm voice of reason rises above the din. @Indy for city council!!

  5. Jackey Niraula

    April 27, 2019 at 1:10 pm

    I am a decent enabler and provider for my family with God’s grace. Just because they are homeless and less fortunate I don’t give the stank eyes to them like most of us do here. I don’t understand it, ain’t we human first? Don’t we have soul? Do we really have to be that mean to look them down? There are some instances of criminal activities, safety hazards, needles here and there but don’t put them all in one basket. Let’s think about other alternatives as a community so they can also live with dignity.

  6. James Weller

    April 27, 2019 at 12:22 pm

    That is a very well done compilation of first-person testimonies. Thank you!

  7. Chuck

    April 27, 2019 at 8:49 am

    Its important to recall that all homeless are someone’s Mother, Father, Son, Daughter. With all the efforts to dehumanize the less fortunate, at the end of the day we all fall on the spectrum. Anyone can end up homeless. The expanding homeless crisis says nothing about who “they” are but rather speaks to who “we” as a society are.

  8. Alicia Kuhl

    April 27, 2019 at 7:58 am

    Wonderfully written article about my friends. It’s time for Santa Cruz to stop being hateful to the homeless, and stop pretending we have enough shelter and resources.

    • Melissa Catania

      April 27, 2019 at 1:17 pm

      Nobody hates the unfortunate, law abiding homeless…although maybe they shouldn’t chose to live in an expensive beach town if they can’t afford to. There are affordable towns with jobs elsewhere. What we are sick of is your enabling and putting the needs of a bunch of lawless addicts above our town.

  9. Reggie

    April 27, 2019 at 4:03 am

    Thank you so much for this story Lauren. It is honestly a breath of fresh air. I have met all of these people over many trips to the camp delivering supplies with the Democratic Socialists of America and have wanted to tell these stories! This is exactly what this community needs to read about.

  10. Jim

    April 26, 2019 at 8:40 pm

    Wow! What a naive point of view from this author. Enabling drug addicts is a slow death sentence. How many repeat offenders are just let back out of jail in our City from all over the county as our only county jail now is right downtown and always overcrowded because of the lax enforcement in the first place. Why are the laws not enforced equally to all? I have to go to court and pay if I break the law, but no consequences for thieves and IV drug users it seems . As many have said, what would happen if I opened a beer on the beach? Stop the insanity, enforce the laws!

  11. Adriana Gores

    April 26, 2019 at 4:31 pm

    Although i appreciate the things these Ross Camp residents have to say, there seems to be across the board omissions about the reasons they ended up homeless in the first place. “I used to be a carpenter” I worked my butt off…and now I”m by myself” OK, so what happened? Domestic violence, drug abuse, alcohol, divorce, mental health issues. What? I have to think one must take ownership of what got them to this place before they and we/the city can figure out how to help them out of it.

  12. John E. Colby

    April 26, 2019 at 3:57 pm

    Homeless people should be seen as co-equal members of our community.

    I was made homeless for reporting protected Section 8 drug dealers to the (federal) government. I’m disabled. I’m not a problem to be solved. I’m a human being who desires to be treated with dignity and respect. I’m not a second-class citizen.

    How can humanizing anyone be a bad thing? That’s heartless! it’s sad people in our community feel that way. 40% of the populace is one paycheck away from homelessness.

  13. Jessica Chuidian-Ingersoll

    April 26, 2019 at 3:36 pm

    I think I caught a typo there Jake! here’s a rewrite:

    Everybody has a story. This is a great way to illuminate people’s humanity in a way that Santa Cruz so often forgets. If we consider stories like these, we can create real solutions. Thank you Lauren Hepler for offering an enlightening and urgent perspective.

  14. Kelly

    April 26, 2019 at 1:23 pm

    A more well rounded story would also interview those living around the camp and its direct impact on them. That tells a very very different story as to what is going down over there. Drugs, knives, drugs and more knives

    • Nina Eliza Stratton

      April 27, 2019 at 9:02 am

      Kelly, this is a small town. You can find those people and interview them yourself! I don’t who they would be – the closest neighbors I can see are across the San Lorenzo.

      • Melissa Catania

        April 27, 2019 at 1:22 pm

        Spot on, Kelly. Nina, I. have been harassed and even threatened by enough of the not so nice homeless in this commuity. It’s not acceptable.

  15. Jake Aston

    April 26, 2019 at 7:40 am

    We all got sob stories. This is such a pathetic ploy to “humanize” the Ross camp and push the public in its favor. What we need is solutions, not sob stories. Shame on you Lauren Helper (ironic name there) for offering such a tired and vapid perspective.

    • Lauren Hepler

      April 26, 2019 at 8:50 am

      It’s Hepler (P before L)

    • Jake

      April 26, 2019 at 2:10 pm

      You sound exactly like the kind of people that those interviewed for this story are tired of dealing with. Alot of us are about 3 steps from being in the situation these people are in. We’ve made the effort to donate food and supplies to the camp when we can or have had an abundance of things, what have you done to help?

      • Indy

        April 26, 2019 at 6:07 pm

        Jake, it looks as though Lauren has written an unbiased and clear article that offers direct quotes of people who are homeless in Santa Cruz. You propose finding solutions, then why are you focused on attacking the person who wrote this article? Putting “humanize” in quotes as you did, like these folks aren’t human, is certainly not a solution. Listening to everyone impacted by homelessness is the first step and this article brings that to light.

    • Reggie

      April 27, 2019 at 4:06 am

      Drew has offered a variety of evidence-based, compassionate, and cost-effective solutions. I suggest you research Transitional Encampments and Safe Parking Programs.

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