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Alarming Incidents Fuel Tannery Backlash Against Encampment

Explosions, drugs and fire threat lead residents to speak out against neighboring homeless camp

Art teacher Linda Cover, left, and music teacher Coral Brune, both residents of the Tannery Arts Center, walk along the path running behind the complex. To their left, through the trees and across the San Lorenzo River, lies a large homeless encampment. PHOTO: TODD GUILD

Linda Cover strolls along a smooth, paved walkway that runs behind the Tannery Arts Center and along the San Lorenzo River on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. As she walks past well-kept landscaping unsullied by a hint of trash on the ground, a young girl calls happily down to her from a balcony overlooking the path.

“Hi, Linda,” she says. “What are you doing?” 

“I’m walking,” Cover replies, adding jovially, “Is that OK?”

Cover, an artist and art teacher who has lived at the center since it opened in 2009, says the community of roughly 300 is a vibrant one full of artists of every ilk. It also features a gallery and theater, and numerous arts education opportunities. 

On the other side of the path, just across the river in a long swath of wooded area, is a homeless encampment of roughly 200 people. The contrast between this shambolic collection of ramshackle, tarp-covered lean-tos and tents and the neighboring arts center is striking. On that same Tuesday, groups of people sit talking in their campsites, while others push bikes along a dirt pathway or haul tattered bags full of belongings. One woman sitting halfway out of her tent—in full view of the pathway—is injecting herself with a syringe. There is a surprisingly small amount of litter, possibly thanks to several trash cans scattered throughout the area, but the smell of urine permeates the site.

Residents of the Tannery say that because of the encampment, they contend with open drug use, crime such as vandalism and vehicle burglaries, loud noises at all hours and increased fire danger. Cover pulls out her phone and shows a video taken at 6am on July 8 of a giant blaze that followed an explosion somewhere in the camp. Sometimes, she says, she puts towels around her door to block smoke emanating from fires at the encampment.

Next to Chaos

“We hear screaming,” Cover says. “We hear people in domestic abuse situations, we hear dogs barking at all hours, we hear chopping, we hear generators, we hear chainsaws. We’ve had problems here at the Tannery for a very long time.”

This is not to mention the damage to the riparian habitat caused by a large group of people living without sewer facilities, she says.

The problem grew worse recently when Caltrans disbanded several homeless camps along the Highway 1 corridor, Cover says. Residents have sent letters to city officials, pleading for help.

“I think it’s important that the city of Santa Cruz not put this on the back burner,” Cover says. 

Art Pitts, a Tannery resident and musician, says he has found drug paraphernalia and has called the police at least four times to report explosions, drug dealing and other issues.

Pitts says he lives in fear that a fire could jump the short distance and destroy the 12-year-old art complex, displacing the residents, many of whom are low income and would have nowhere to go.

“We’re really concerned that all the money that has been invested in this community will be gone,” Pitts says. 

He adds that he and the other Tannery residents care about their homeless neighbors. But he says he wants the community to understand the danger posed by the encampment. 

“This is the worst risk we have ever faced,” he says. “It’s not the people who are truly homeless and trying to find their way we’re worried about. We could be totally homeless in an instant because these people are living basically lawless.”

Santa Cruz Police Department Chief Andy Mills says that his officers visit the area frequently, but with multiple areas of concern, including Pogonip, Sycamore Grove and Hells Trail, it is a question of priorities for the city and allocation of resources for the police. The encampment near the Tannery, he says, does not get the same number of calls for service as other similar areas do.

“You can’t do everything at once,” he says. “We understand it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with, and we’re working on it.”

AK and AGM, both of whom asked that their full names not be used, live in a tent-and-tarp complex at the end of the trail in the encampment. A generator buzzed nearby as they talked briefly about their lives there.

AK, who came to the camp after he was displaced by the CZU fire, says that the residents have a vested interest in protecting and preserving the place they call home since a fire would mean losing the one tenuous place they have. And so the residents meet weekly to talk about safety issues, such as fire danger, escape routes and excessive trash, he says. 

In addition, some residents patrol the camp looking for safety issues, and try to encourage their fellow residents to keep the noise down, AK says.

“This is our home,” he says. “We try to nip that stuff in the bud.”

AGM said he and the other residents would be open to feedback from their neighbors across the river. He also asked for the community to understand the plight of the people living there.

“Have a little compassion for us, and understand that we’re not trying to be here forever,” AGM says. “This is a stepping stone for us, and we’re trying to keep the peace.”

A Dry Spell 

The city is looking to the remainder of the summer season with a wary eye. Many officials were in the Pogonip area Tuesday clearing campsites and making sure people were staying out of off-trail open space areas, part of an effort to reduce fire danger in the drought-wracked county.

An order signed by Santa Cruz Fire Chief Jason Hajduk on July 9—which began to be enforced on June 16—says that the heat and dry conditions present a risk of “significant wildland fire.” 

“There is an urgent need to close off-trail areas of city-owned wildland open spaces,” Hajduk says. 

He says that the danger comes from low moisture levels in fuels such as grasses and brush, which is down to 30% of normal, closer to those found in September and October.

Dozens of fires in the city’s open spaces, Hajduk says, have largely been caused by unsanctioned encampments. A recent grand jury report says that the city experienced 75 fires between May and June. 

Under the order, anyone found within the closed spaces faces misdemeanor charges. As of Tuesday, officials had handed out more than 20 citations since enforcement began, Hajduk says, adding that most of the areas included in the order are already prohibited. Hajduk says that the majority of the enforcement efforts will focus on education.

It is unclear how the grand jury report will guide policy in the Santa Cruz Fire Department and the city as it seeks to tackle the problem.

Among other things, the grand jury recommends that the city create a vegetation management plan focusing on the removal of more flammable eucalyptus trees, in addition to establishing “Firewise” communities in neighborhoods that abut natural areas, also known as wildland-urban interfaces.

Hajduk points out that neither of those recommendations is easy, since even removing every eucalyptus tree would still leave behind fuel sources. In addition, Firewise communities require citizen volunteers, which can be difficult to recruit, he says.

Also unclear is where the displaced people will go once they move. A federal judge in June lifted a preliminary injunction preventing the city from evicting hundreds of homeless people from San Lorenzo Park, where they have been living since July 2020. But the city has no plans to immediately remove them.In May, the Santa Cruz City Council passed an ordinance that bans camping in most areas of the city, but that rule won’t be enforced until the city establishes 150 “safe sleeping sites.”

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