By Chris J. Magyar and Elizabeth Limbach
Homeless camping, panhandling, drug dealing, drum circling, parading, petitioning and protesting. For those who are annoyed with the state of downtown Santa Cruz, these activities are all lumped together, and need to be dealt with. But is there such a thing as a “solution” to a culture?
“When are you going to write about the homeless people downtown?” That’s a common request. As is, “Are you going to do anything about the panhandlers?” And, “You guys should write about downtown,” a sentence safe in its assumption that we will know what’s meant. Truth is, downtown Santa Cruz, and Pacific Avenue in particular, is an ideological battleground, and one that appears to be sharpening into two sides. On the one hand, there are people who are disgusted and annoyed by the state of downtown. We’ve heard the phrases “take back the streets” and “clean this city up” come from prominent mouths (who would never say such things on the record). And on the other hand, there have been accusations of fascism and unconstitutional trampling of rights coming from people who believe that downtown is besieged by draconian laws enforced by police who are nothing more than stooges for business owners.
Is the one hand complaining about the other? The two sides certainly confront each other with regularity at most any public forum you can attend in this city (and you’ll find representatives doing so further on in this section). Or is all the complaining floating over the heads of the people being talked about? Who are “the people”? What are “the problems”? Would the sight of homeless people sleeping in doorways be less disturbing if there weren’t also young people begging for change on the corner? Vice versa? If the meth trade moved somewhere else, would the streets become less hippie-like, or more hippie-like? Is there a connection between street musicians and crime? Between alcoholism and marijuana trafficking?
Underneath it all lurks the question that’s rarely asked: why is Santa Cruz so weird?
There is no one, easy-to-grasp story that can answer these questions. In fact, most of these issues, minus a modern twist or two, have been around since the dawn of city life. So, instead of just the usual “here’s the new law” and “here’s what the loudest protest group says about it” piece, GT thought it might try a different approach to explaining the culture of downtown Santa Cruz. If nothing else, perhaps it will dispel the notion that there’s one name for this issue, or one issue to be tackled, before everyone is happy. And with luck, maybe it will help each side understand the other, and remind everyone that there are a whole lot of forgotten people caught in the middle.
Can rhetoric from the police force keep Pacific Avenue polite?
-By Chris J. Magyar
Along with the milkman and the paperboy, the 1940s movie trope of the friendly police officer strolling down the sidewalk seems a vestige of a bygone era. Yet that is basically the job description for Sgt. Michael Harms, a supervisor with the Santa Cruz Police Department who can be seen, most afternoons, walking up and down Pacific Avenue and talking to nearly everyone he meets. He seemingly knows the first and last name of everyone in town—from shopkeepers to panhandlers, politicians to bicycle thieves—and when he meets someone he doesn’t know, his first order of business is learning that person’s story. I spent an evening with Sgt. Harms, and I’ll admit right up front that I was shamed; the man is curious, conversational, and has a deadly accurate memory. In other words, he’s a better reporter than I am.
But while I have the luxury of standing back a few feet, taking notes and merely recording what happens on this “particularly quiet” Thursday night in Santa Cruz, Harms must step in and interact with anything and everything that comes his way. He’s no saint, but no devil, either. This piece is not meant to lionize a particular officer, but to portray the method Santa Cruz has taken in dealing with the issue with no name.
Behind the Badge
You cannot get out of the front seat of a police car without becoming a different person. And you cannot walk down the street with a uniformed officer without seeing everyone in a different light. You’re on that team. That side. When kids with bravado call out sotto voce cop insults behind your back, those insults are aimed at you, too. It takes a lot of comfort and discipline not to feel like a lone ranger walking down the street as a cop, a minority of one. Harms doesn’t flinch. He reminds me of Pat Burrell, the left fielder for the Philadelphia Phillies. I once spent six or seven innings loudly making fun of the way he dyed his hair from the bleachers during a cold game in April, and he never once turned around to give me the bird. He’s still a lousy hitter in the clutch, but I respect him now as much as I hate him, because he ignored me.
On this particular day, Harms could have been excused for being less than his usual unruffled self. Earlier, his friend and colleague in the traffic unit was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle through an intersection. The accident happened right in front of Harms, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. By police department policy, he couldn’t even participate in the investigation—the California Highway Patrol was called in to report the incident. Then, at nearly the exact same time, an elderly man drove his car off the Wharf. The rescue effort that afternoon was unsuccessful, and the man died.
Still, despite the high stress start to his 2 to 10 p.m. shift, and the fact that it was his “Friday night” with two days off coming up, Harms was his usual calm, measured self. The police department is rigorous in its hiring practices. Potential officers are put through a stringent battery of physical, mental, and background checks. The ideal result from all this screening is someone who can stand firm on the law without being, well, an asshole.
“I try to create an understanding with everyone I talk to,” Harms says. “If I’m always just giving people tickets and harassing them, as people like to say, nobody would give me the time of day to talk to me. I have to treat everyone the same way, and for the most part that’s how we all operate. Cops don’t get into this job to be abusive jerks. Is it possible that somebody working here could fall into that? It could happen. I’ve worked here 12 years and I haven’t seen it, or anything remotely close to some of the stuff I’ve read in the news about abusive cops in some of the bigger cities.”
Judging by the experiences of the walkalong, and other numerous incidents where I’ve seen local police and deputies interact with protestors, criminals, or people who just don’t like cops, it appears that the weapon most frequently employed by the law here is rhetoric. A night with Sgt. Harms is not a night of foot chases, squealing car tires, barked commands, perps pressed up against a wall, and other clichés from a certain Fox television show. Rather, it’s one long, seemingly endless conversation about appropriate behavior, like a night hanging out with your new lover’s kind, but stern, father.
When Push Comes to Shove
The first person we approach on Pacific is a panhandler, a woman, who is technically breaking two ordinances—one, panhandling after dark, and two, having a dog on Pacific Avenue. The first might surprise some people: technically, panhandling is legal downtown between sunrise and sunset. However, there’s a lot of math involved if you want to do it legally. You must be 14 feet from a business entrance, open-air café, or crosswalk; 50 feet from any bank, ATM, vending machine or bank parking lot; and not sitting or leaning on a bench, planter, monument, or piece of private property. Cops and would-be spare changers (‘spangers’ in the argot) know that the sidewalk squares are two feet by two feet, meaning you just have to situate yourself seven sidewalk squares from any obstacle. This leaves a patchwork of squares, like spaces on a chessboard that a knight can land on, from which beggars may ply their trade without being bothered by the cops. Harms is more concerned about her second violation, however, as she approaches the dog. He stops short when he sees the service dog harness. The woman doesn’t appear to be blind. Before he can delve deeper, he spies a man named Brian sitting on a bench in a group of people. He approaches.
“Tell me about it,” Harms says.
“Are you talking about last night?” Brian replies.
“What do you think?”
“I did not do anything wrong.”
Harms folds his arms. “Tell me about it.”
“This old guy, walking down the street, the old guy, my friend asked him for change. It’s pretty late, dark. So my friend asks him for change. He starts freaking out, calling him a piece of shit, ‘Get the fuck off our street, you’re ruining our society.’ And I walked up and was like, ‘Whoa dude, what the fuck. Who the fuck do you think you are? We contribute to society every day. Even though we ask for money we put it right back into your businesses.’ And he freaked out and said ‘fuck you’ and pushed me. So I said, ‘Fuck you,’ and pushed him back, and walked away.”
Brian has an agitated voice, but sits fairly still on the bench in front of Hoffman’s. As he’s talking to Harms, June Hoffman, the bakery’s owner, comes out and says she’ll put her name on a citation about the incident. She and Brian glare at each other. Brian has an anarchy tattoo on his right hand, though it’s hard to tell in the dark if it’s permanent or penned on. He’s shaking slightly, holding a cigarette in one hand and smoking a second with his other. He hands the second cigarette to a friend. “He owns half of Pacific Avenue. I found that out today,” he adds. The man he got into a pushing match with was Craig French of Redtree Properties, who does indeed own several blocks of Pacific Avenue.
“Of course there’s two sides to every story,” Harms begins.
“Yeah, and I’m the bad guy,” Brian retorts. “I’m a homeless piece of shit.”
“Did I say that?” Harms challenges.
“No no no. That’s what I’m pretty sure he said.”
As they converse, someone who’s apparently very unobservant of police uniforms parallel parks in a red zone right in front of the bench we’re standing around. Harms glances at the violation then goes back to the conversation.
“OK, Brian, here’s the problem. A man coming out of the theatre …”
“I didn’t know who he was.”
“… it doesn’t matter who he was.”
“He pushed me! He put his hands on me! They all saw it!”
“Hold on, hold on,” Harms says. “I’m not talking about him anymore. Just, in general. You just had a nice meal with your family. You’re walking out. The last thing you need is somebody saying, ‘Gimme your food.’ That’s what they hear. Whether or not you say that, that’s what they hear.”
“I say, ‘Thank you have a great night,’ every time,” Brian says.
“Maybe it’s not you,” Harms says, looking Brian in the eye. “But that’s what they hear, over and over.” The two talk back and forth about the rules, about panhandling after dark and not approaching people in groups. Brian clearly knows the rules, but Harms powers through his lecture anyhow, brushing aside the interruptions. The conversation slowly turns back to the shoving incident.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Brian says. “Just because they make the rules they can put their hands on me?”
“I’m not saying that,” Harms answers. “What I’m talking about is behavior.”
“I didn’t do anything. My friend …”
“He didn’t talk about your friend,” Harms says, the first time he’s mentioned a statement from French. “He only talked about you. He says you’re the one who came up swearing at him. But that’s it. I just wanted to let you know. If you’re out here spanging at night, you know we’re coming.”
Then the conversation goes in an unexpected direction, as Harms asks if Brian picked up the antibiotics for an infection he had in his jaw. Apparently Harms had arranged with a social service worker to get the medicine to Brian. The two don’t end on exactly friendly terms, but not antagonistic, either. Brian has the attitude that Harms is just someone else to deal with in his day.
He glares at us as we move over to June Hoffman to debrief her on the conversation. She tells him about the various times she’s chased Brian off for panhandling in front of her business at night. “This one was really abusive,” she says of him.
“He gets really bad when he’s drunk,” Harms avers. It turns out that Brian is on a special parole that bars him from drinking alcohol. He has a history of becoming violent when he’s had too much. Two of Harms’ beat cops, Bill Winston and Brian Warren, show up, and Harms tells them to keep an eye on Brian, make sure he doesn’t get out of line. “I was talking to the city,” Harms tells Hoffman, “maybe we could get these benches put on side streets. It’s not going to make a difference if you need to sit, you can sit around the corner, but it’s not very inviting when you’ve got five people facing the restaurant emm-effing everybody.” Hoffman says she’ll talk to some people about it.
She lets him move on, saying, “Thank you. You guys are doing a really good job. It’s way better than it was last year.” That “it” again; the issue with no name.
The Bird’s Nest
We walk down the street a ways, and Harms fills me in on Brian’s backstory, at least where it crosses paths with the law. He gets into the weaknesses of the law itself when it comes to dealing with problems. “All we can do is issue citations,” he says. “With all the citations being sent to collections, people who don’t have a credit rating already, they just tear them up. They tell us that all the time. I’ve had guys say, ‘I don’t know why you’re even bothering with this. These are toilet paper to us.’” He tells me there are some people who’ve had hundreds of contacts with law enforcement in a year, building up $20,000 or more in fines. “They come down here every day, they drink, they urinate on walls, and they don’t even care if they get caught, because there’s no sanction. It means nothing to you to get a fine if you have no money.”
As we walk, we run into a man named CJ. Older and bearded, he resembles Santa doing gardening, with his floppy brown hat and ruddy cheeks. “Hey CJ, how are you doing?” he asks.
“Got the flu,” he responds, slowing his stride to walk with us.
“The flu again? For two months?”
“Yeah, I’m trying to get over it.”
“How’s the housing thing coming?”
CJ stops walking. “As soon as I get my check from Social Security.”
“When’s that coming?”
“They don’t know. It’s supposed to be here but they don’t know where it is. But I’ve got my own housing once I get the money. Back in Felton, back up in the mountains where I belong.”
“Just come back and play guitar,” Harms says. “I love to hear you playing. Some of the other stuff that’s been going on with you, not so much.”
“Yeah, living on the street’s different from having a job like you got,” CJ responds. They chat a while about his situation. He’s hopeful, thinking he might get a job back in the stables tending horses, and have a fresh life with his own pad. Harms recalls when CJ was the victim of a nasty assault on East Cliff. CJ won’t be deterred from his hopeful talk. “You play, and you play, and you play, and what happens is, once you get established, you can get a PA system, and go get real gigs.”
“But what doesn’t help is when you start drinking,” Harms says.
“Yeah, what comes out is, you separate the two. You got your daytime stuff when you play your gigs, and when you’ve done them you have a couple of drinks. That’s not against the law.”
Harms smiles. “You’re doing fine after a couple of drinks. It’s when you pass out on the bench and you can’t get up anymore that we have problems.”
They talk about his wife, who passed away, and how he always has a hard time this time of year, around the anniversary of her death. Then CJ moves along. Harms pauses, watching him go, then looking left and right. Then, he pulls a set of keys out of his pocket and opens the stairwell door to an apartment complex above the street. We go up to the second floor, and he unlocks the door to a vacant studio apartment filled with discarded furniture.
The police have agreements with some of the landlords in town to use vacant upper-story apartments along Pacific as impromptu stakeout seats. Leaving the lights off, Harms opens a window and pulls up a chair, giving himself a clear view of half the block and around the corner into the alley. The sound is remarkably vivid. Across the street, a group of kids walking by talks, practically shouts, about where they’re going to score some drugs. Harms says he can hear entire conversations, and watch everything that happens. If a drug deal goes down, he radios it in, then apprehends the dealer and gives them a play-by-play of where they spit, which pocket the money is in, and exactly what they said, as if he were standing there during the deal.
“You get some of the younger kids shoulder tapping the older guys,” he says. “Some older guys who want a couple bucks, they say you buy us this and keep some for yourself.” On occasion he’ll film video or take pictures to seal the case. He points out a guy walking by, and says he’s a residential burgler and bike thief, out on parole. Another couple walks under the window talking about methadone. He leans out to get a better look at them. Then he sits back in his chair. The whoosh of a car driving by is the only thing to break the ensuing silence. It’s a quiet Thursday night, he tells me.
Endings and Beginnings
Our next segment of the beat is the alleyways. Harms walks a regular, if eccentric, path in order to cover the downtown area and the adjacent parts of lower Pacific that make up his zone. “It’s a constant migration,” he says of the people who make Pacific Avenue their home. “As the weather gets bad, people from Humboldt, Arcada, Oregon, Washington, they all start heading south. And then year-round they come from everywhere else: Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, and Illinois, those are the ones we seem to run into repeatedly. And then a large percentage of the people from Oregon and Washington, when we deal with them and run them through the system, a lot of them have warrants out, minor ones of course. But they won’t extradite. There’s a three-state pact with Idaho, Oregon and Washington. In those states, they’ll extradite, if not, they don’t want you back. Stay in California.” He gets into the runaways, who come down and never leave because they find support here on the streets.
Our conversation is interrupted by some loud, slightly off-key Broadway singing coming from behind a set of buildings. My non-cop instinct is to ignore it and keep moving, but Harms immediately walks over to find a man named Bradley, who’s so intent on singing he hardly notices the policeman approach, serenading a young man cradling someone in a green blanket. Harms starts by chastising Bradley, but then notices who’s in the blanket.
“Connie, what are you doing?”
A frail and impossibly wrinkled woman with matted hair pokes her head up, squinting into the beam of his flashlight, and moans through a throat full of phlegm.
“How is Paul?” Bradley asks, inquiring about the officer who was hit on his motorcycle earlier in the day. News travels fast on the streets.
“Paul is fine. He’s going to be OK.”
“I was fortunate to see that. I was going to give him CPR,” Bradley slurs.
“Connie, do you need any help right now? Are you going to be OK?”
“I just got out,” she whines. The young man cradling her hands Harms some hospital paperwork.
“Why would they let you out if you’re in such bad shape?” he asks, examining the papers.
“I don’t know.”
Bradley’s still trying to get a word into the conversation. “Where are you not supposed to be?” Harms asks him. “You’ve got a restraining order not to be downtown.”
“No, I’m sorry sir, but it’s Pacific Boulevard [sic] and I am not on Pacific,” he says, slightly belligerently. “Right now I am not on Pacific.”
“Do you have any terms that you’re not supposed to be drinking? Because you’re drunk right now.”
“You trying to pick on me, man? Let’s go around the block. I don’t care. I’ve been through this so many times. When Paul went down I was going to be the first one to give him CPR.”
Harms has turned his attention to the young man. “You need to get Connie somewhere else. The concrete’s going to suck the heat out of her. She might not wake up.”
Meanwhile Connie is starting to wail. “I don’t feel good. Leave me alone! I don’t want … leave me …” and Bradley is mumbling about not having liquor unless he gets three dollars.
“Are you going to take care of her?” he asks the young man, who answers in the affirmative. “Connie, do you need to go back to the hospital?”
“I’ll be down on Walnut Street if you want me,” Bradley says, shuffling off.
The woman rolls in her blanket and thrashes about as her caretaker tries to lift her. “God dammit! Why can’t I be left alone?” He lifts her to reveal an empty booze bottle. She coughs one of those awful coughs, the ones that used to be called a death rattle. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m fucking cold. I’m sick.”
Bradley repeats that he’s getting his backpack on Walnut Street and leaves. Connie is slowly sitting up. She finds a coin on the pavement, and suddenly the pain leaves her voice. “Oh hey, a penny. I’m rich,” she deadpans. Once he’s sure Connie can get up and move someplace theoretically warmer, we move on.
“There’s always a bottle around,” he says.
Back on Pacific, we run into Winston and Warren. “If you see Bradley, he gets to go to jail tonight,” he tells them. They catch up on who’s been spotted and what’s gone down, then we tromp back up the sidewalk.
In front of New Leaf, a group of kids is occupying the sidewalk between the green café railings and the grocery store’s wall. They’re not doing much, just sitting crosslegged. Harms walks amongst them and tells them they can’t block the sidewalk. A young guy with long hair who resembles the late Shannon Hoon from Blind Melon takes sardonic exception. “What, because you don’t like the look of me?” Harms asks for IDs. “Wait, who are you?” the long-haired guy asks, still laughing sarcastically. “Har-har-harms? Harms? You’ve got to own your nametage dude. Wear it proudly.”
The officer is focused on the youngest-looking member of the group, a girl with a sexless haircut and wary but steady eyes. She’s clutching a skateboard. “Who are you?”
“Cayleen,” she says.
“Cayleen? Cayleen from where?”
“Eugene,” she answers.
“How long have you been in Santa Cruz?”
“A couple days.”
“You guys can’t be here,” he tells the group. “You’re sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, and you’re making a gauntlet for people to go through, and that’s not very welcoming. They’ll see you and cross the street and go all the way around.”
“Me?” asks long-hair. “I don’t even have a petition, dude.” They start to move on, and Cayleen heads toward Borders.
“Cayleen from Eugene?” he asks her again. “How old are you?”
“Do your parents know where you are?”
Harms replies, “Getting there. So if I run you through the system, you’re not going to turn up as a runaway.”
“No, I really got to pee. Where can I pee?”
He points her to the Soquel/Front parking garage, and she walks off, still clutching her skateboard. Sixteen.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
We walk back toward Walnut street, to see if Bradley is hanging around there like he promised. Instead, Harms notices a body underneath a blue sleeping bag, camped out in the vestibule of Bay Photo. “CJ, what are you doing?”
“Nothing,” the old man answers, noticeably less energetic than when he spoke to us just a few hours earlier. “Just going to sleep.”
“Have you talked to the owner of the business at all?”
“Yep,” he answers quickly. “As long as the way is clear, and I leave it like I left it, you know.”
“Well, I’m going to check in with them tomorrow, and see if they’re cool with this,” Harms promises. “What’s going to happen is you’re here, and then there’s three people here…”
“That’s not going to happen,” CJ says. “I’ll run ‘em off. You know. I’ve been at this for a long time.”
“I just don’t typically see you here this early.”
CJ squints at him. He does look tired. “I’ve got the flu. That damn flu. All I want to do is sleep. I feel like I weigh a thousand pounds.”
Harms makes him promise to visit the doctor. We move on. As we walk, Harms starts to talk to himself a little. “Two months, with this flu. Every time I talk to him he’s got a buddy about to pack up his stuff and take him to a place. And now it’s this flu. He’s got to take care of himself. It sucks, you know? To see him like that. Now he’s got himself too drunk, and he’s out there in the open where people can prey on him.”
We go back to the Hoffman’s corner, where Brian is still on the bench, by himself now. We stand across the street and just watch him. He doesn’t notice us, or maybe he does and doesn’t acknowledge us. Two older people walk by slowly, and the man, who uses a cane, seems to think about speaking, then does. “I appreciate what you’re doing,” he says to Harms, then tells him about a mugging at the Sentinel’s old building.
“I’m not going to park there anymore,” the woman says. “Not even in daytime.”
“But we come here all the time,” the man says. “It’s not the homeless people. It’s the drug and alcohol people we watch out for.” They thank Harms again and walk away.
Another pedestrian walks along. Harms knows him, and asks if he’ll cross the street and walk in front of Brian, to see if he’s panhandling. He’s not. Harms shrugs and now it does seem that Brian’s watching us from the corner of his eye. Just then, a wild-eyed man with tufts of kinky hair walks up playing a guitar and singing the chorus to “Crazy Train” over and over again.
He walks right up to Harms. “I’m going down the rails on a Crazy Train,” he says, looking at each of us in turn. “I’m going down the rails on a Crazy Train.”
“That’s Tim Vargas,” Harms explains. “Can you speed that up?” he requests. In the intersection, a younger man stands in the middle of the crosswalk looking up at the stars like they’re the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. It’s Tim’s son, Jessie. “We got two generations of Vargas here,” Harms says, almost proudly.
Tim Vargas notices some young girls walking back from the Blue Lagoon, and starts to follow them, still repeating his “Crazy Train” song, and Jessie follows him, grinning like an idiot. Harms tells me they once set their apartment on fire. “Just another Santa Cruz eccentric,” he says.
Another young woman comes skipping down the street and turns into Taqueria Vallarta with her friend. “Hey Harms,” she says.
“Michaela. How was the thing?”
“I’m out,” she answers. “It’s my 21st birthday.”
“How long were you in?”
“Was it the thing I got you on?”
“No,” she says. “The bench warrant.” Then she smiles and sticks her tongue out at him. “I didn’t do anything wrong officer.”
They both smile and she goes into the restaurant. “Six days in jail and she’s right back out partying,” he says, explaining that she was one who just fell in with a wrong crowd, even though she had a family to turn to. “And the jail, it just dumps right out downtown.
His radio cracks to life. Winston and Warren have arrested a man for being drunk in public. Harms asks if I want to see the jail, and, well, you know, why not? We walk back to his patrol car and drive the few blocks to the County Jail.
The bay doors of the cop car entrance fold back impressively, revealing a garage for up to four cruisers. Winston and Warren are filling out paperwork. Harms goes in to make sure the jail’s OK with my visit. The arrested man is still cuffed and in the back seat of a cruiser. He leans out the window and sings to me, “I’m a baaaad man.”
The cops let him out and sit him on a bench in the garage. He was drinking vodka out in front of the Avenue. He turns for the cuffs to be released, but they ignore him and continue on the paperwork. Harms comes back. “Is this your first time in jail?” he asks.
“Yeah,” the guy slurs, then laughs. Winston reveals he had $2 on him. “Who are you?” he asks while suddenly lurching toward me. It’s strange: he’s the only person who takes any notice of me all night. Before I can answer, Harms says I’m the doctor. “Doctor Doolittle,” the man says, then laughs.
His name is Michael, although he told the officers it was Matthew. They figured out his real name easily enough, since he was clutching an envelope with his name and address on it when they found him. “Which is it, Michael or Matthew?” Harms teases.
“Michael, Michael,” he says. “Matthew is my brother’s name.”
All three cops give him a chorus: “No, no, no.” Giving a real person’s name is a felony, they tell him. He quickly retracts. Then complains, “My brother gives my name all the time. I had to pay $12,000 in traffic fines because he gave my name.” In addition to the $2, the cops find a prescription for methadone. “When I was 18 years old,” Michael continues, “my father pointed a gun at me and asked me if I wanted to die, then turned it and blew his brains out right in front of me. But who cares about that, the point is …” He trails off. The happy singing drunk time is quickly giving way to melancholy.
They take him into a holding room—painted green, so even the jail has a green room for its performers—and he assumes the frisking position, obviously no stranger to the booking procedure. A deputy comes in to process him. In another room, a grown man with a full beard is bawling, something to do with a domestic violence incident. Harms knows him, of course, and goes to see if he’s OK. Harms also knows most of the staff, having done a stint at the county a few years ago before returning to the city police.
There are five people in the waiting room, sitting in hard plastic bucket chairs of the type that older airports used to have. Two of them are in prison uniforms. “30 Rock” plays silently on a small television hanging from the ceiling. The sheriff interviews Michael about his drug use. He has hepatitis C.
“I shouldn’t have been on the corner drinking vodka,” he starts complaining. The atmosphere of the room, with the wailing man, is insufferable, like a hospital for the sickened soul. “That was the dumbest fucking thing I could do. You know? I don’t have to be here. I don’t have to be this.” He points at Warren. “I could have been your friend.”
Nobody responds. His check-in done, the sheriff guides him to the metal detector, which he sways through, on his way to a sad, drunken night in a prison cell.
Voices of Pacific
A glimpse of life outdoors in Santa Cruz
by Elizabeth Limbach
When I meet Bradley, he is sitting on a backpack on the corner of Pacific Avenue and Cooper Street reading the morning paper. He looks up at me from the news section, “Did you know Obama read comics as a kid?” I didn’t. “Well, all I’m saying is that I think it’ll be good for us to have a nerd in the White House,” he adds, turning over his cardboard sign as if to say “closed for business” while we talk.
I sit down on the thin planter ledge behind him, but before I can so much as whip out my notepad Bradley knowingly tells me I can’t sit there. He’s referring to city rules that prohibit resting on the edge of a planter or leaning against a building. The rules also stipulate that anyone “loitering” downtown must be 14 feet from any crosswalks or building and 50 feet from ATMs and restaurants. I am suddenly awakened to my privilege—I would never think twice about sitting on a planter out of fear of the police. But for Bradley, and many of Santa Cruz’s down-and-out, these ordinances are very real restrictions on their everyday life.
I was reminded of an interview I did with city council contender J. Craig Canada during the 2008 election season. Canada had spent three years sleeping outside of Wachovia bank in downtown Santa Cruz, and ran for office with a medical marijuana and homeless rights platform. “These laws are all about selective enforcement,” he told me. “No lady in a pantsuit is ever going to get arrested for sitting on a lith of a planter.” I wouldn’t be caught dead in a pantsuit, but his words hit home for me as I sat to join Bradley.
In general, the rules don’t bother Bradley. He sticks to them, and in return has a fairly peaceful experience on Pacific Avenue, where he comes almost everyday. The trouble with the ordinances, he tells me, is that not everyone chooses to follow them. This makes it harder for everyone.
“One of the reasons they give a lot of tickets out is because people have been really disrespectful and immature about living on the streets,” he says. He tells me about a recent incident in which some “hooligans” broke the large, plate glass windows at the barber shop around the corner. “[Some people] treat this place like it’s their own sanctuary to perform exercises in target practice and stuff,” he says. “We all suffer for that.”
Years of street experience has put him in this older-and-wiser position, but has yet to dampen his positivity and striking friendliness. But of his traits, none is more evident than his thirst for knowledge. Bradley went to UC Santa Cruz in the 1970s, where he took general education classes and dabbled in writing and the sciences. He dropped out before he was able to “focus his studies.” He couldn’t return home due to family problems and has been homeless ever since, with Santa Cruz serving as his home base. He may have left school, but Bradley is an eternal student—he reads up to three books a week, many of them textbooks. His library is a book-filled duffle bag stashed in the woods; his current studies include mythology, religion, Japanese, mathematics and music. “This is the new year, time to awaken resolutions,” he says, listing self-education as one. “That’s how Lincoln did it! He taught himself.”
Although he prefers to read or talk to people, Bradley is forced by circumstance to spend some days panhandling. Pacific Avenue is mostly a friendly place for this, he says, although there are the occasional verbal attacks. “My only concerns are the redneck vogue type who say ‘get a job you piece of shit,’” he says. “All I can say back is ‘you don’t get it.’”
According to the 2007 Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey, 13 percent of the area’s homeless are employed. But for the majority of the rest, “get a job” is significantly easier said than done.
One corner down from Bradley sits Terry, a 40-year-old Desert Storm veteran with a sign that reads “US Army Veteran, Anything Helps.” He wears an army jacket and an unwavering, albeit meager, smile. Terry was living with his stepbrother in the French Quarter of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. The pair evacuated two days afterward, and, suddenly displaced, headed toward the California sunshine. They landed in Oceanside, where they did labor ready jobs until Terry sustained a serious back injury. Now the brothers are part of a homeless camp in Santa Cruz. Terry keeps his fingers crossed that doctors will be able to heal his back, and that his Social Security will finally come through.
“I don’t like doing this,” he says. “A lot of people think I’m lazy, and say ‘why don’t you get a job?’ But they have no idea what I’m going through.”
Maggie Mckay, of the Homeless Persons Health Project (HPHP), has been working with homeless in Santa Cruz for 10 years. She says that laziness is one of the main misconceptions people have about the homeless population, which is comprised of a vast crossroads of people with diverse histories and circumstances.
“Career homeless aren’t necessarily choosing the lifestyle,” she says, referring to those who make their living by asking for money. “A lot of them are mentally ill and don’t have occupational skills, or housing, or any sort of negotiation skills. It’s hard enough to navigate the [resources] system, imagine doing it with voices in your head.”
Sixty percent of the homeless surveyed for the 2005 census were experiencing at least one disabling condition, 19 percent of which was mental illnesses. Although a startling figure, this was the least common of the conditions listed. Physical disability was the most prevalent, followed by depression, and alcohol and drug use.
Mckay and I are seated in a bustling café with her coworker Danielle Long, who has been doing street outreach at HPHP for seven years. The conversation drifts from facts to anecdotes and inevitably lands on the topic of drugs. Substance abuse, as the 28 percent with alcoholism and 21 percent with drug addictions reported by the census shows, is a pervasive problem in the homeless community.
The census lists alcohol and drug use as the second biggest reason for homelessness at 13.7 percent, behind unemployment at 23.1. Mckay and Long, however, have seen more people turn to intoxicating substances once they are on the street—and, contrary to what many people assume, it isn’t for recreational purposes.
“A lot of them tell me, ‘what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to fall asleep out here without drinking?,’” says Long. I look across the warm café, out into the hazy winter morning. “If I had to sleep outside in January, I think I’d get drunk, too,” I say. We laugh, but on some level we know it’s true for most people. It’s about survival, the women tell me. And sometimes, being numb makes surviving a whole lot easier. This reality was soon to become very clear to me.
We finish our coffees and take a stroll down the Avenue. Their work as outreach coordinators has acquainted them with many of downtown’s homeless, and I’m eager to see who they might introduce me to. One of the first people I meet is Tyler. After telling a couple of his friends what I was writing about, they excitedly suggested I talk with Tyler, who has an excruciatingly painful exposed nerve in his mouth and no health care or money to get the help he needs. But when they return with him in tow, he is having difficulty walking. His eyes are distant and unfocused. “I’m sorry, I really can’t talk right now,” he says, with slurred speech. His friends explain that some others had just helped Tyler shoot-up, although they don’t say with what. The pain in his mouth had been unbearable; whoever offered him the drugs had done him a favor, of sorts.
After making sure the kids were walking in the direction of the Homeless Services Center, Mckay and Long tell me that, for most homeless people, drugs are cheaper and easier to come by than medicine.
From soup kitchens to shelters, resource centers to social workers, it seems as though Santa Cruz is brimming with homeless services. Whether or not the amount is above average, the town’s services are often blamed for making Santa Cruz a magnet for homeless people. Having dedicated over a decade to providing these services, Mckay is certain that this isn’t the case. “Why does anybody ever come to Santa Cruz? It’s not for the services, it’s for the ocean. It’s for the tolerance,” she says. “But what most people don’t know is that a surprising number of people living on the streets are from Santa Cruz—born and raised.” She’s right: contrary to the popular magnet theory, the 2007 census reported that 68 percent of Santa Cruz County’s 2,700 homeless people lived in Santa Cruz prior to becoming homeless. This number falls in between the 78 percent in Santa Clara County who had resided there before becoming homeless, and 62.3 percent in San Francisco.
We stop to talk with Nicole, a self-proclaimed street kid who falls into the 68 percent of locals. She grew up on the Westside of town, and now bounces back and forth between Washington, where her kids live with their grandfather, and Santa Cruz, where her street family is. Unlike Terry and the career homeless Mckay mentioned, Nicole decides to be homeless.
“This is my life choice,” she says. “Yeah, you have your real family somewhere and you love ’em. But I feel more comfortable out here with these people. They are my family. We look out for each other, we share everything.”
Nicole is with a young man named Eric who would rather not talk about where he is from or why he is on the street. Both are clutching yellow tickets—they had just been ticketed for sitting on a window ledge down by the metro station – and Eric is, however, ready to talk about how he gets treated downtown.
“Downtown sucks,” says Eric. “But we come here because this is where our friends are and this is where the money’s made.”
He adds that downtown police have become increasingly aggressive. Nicole nods, “It’s gotten a lot worse in the past few years,” she says. “They used to walk up and give us warnings, now it’s gotten to a point where they are actually physically doing stuff. And that’s not OK.”
A few days later, another young woman on Pacific Avenue, who declined to give her name but introduced her black kitten as Scuzzy, shared similar sentiments.
“I grew up here and I used to like it downtown, but it just keeps getting worse,” she says. The girl, whose bleached blonde hair is a stark contrast to her black makeup and clothes, had recently lost her apartment. Despite having family in town, she was opting to panhandle her way into getting her apartment back. Her sign read, “Need change for supplies for cold and rainy weather.”
I wasn’t sure what opinion of downtown I’d hear from the handfuls of people I spoke with, but I had assumed it would be fairly uniform. If I learned anything, it is that the homeless population is anything but that. Downtown represents a mere pocket of the county’s homeless, which are as multifarious as the misconceptions people conjure about them. The term “homeless” has come to cloak the demographic, although each individual’s circumstances are much more varied (houseless, jobless, traveling, mentally ill, substance abuse). While some of the younger kids told me stories about forceful police and unsympathetic townspeople, many of their elders felt that downtown Santa Cruz was a nice, safe and peaceful place to be. The only common denominator amongst them all was feeling misunderstood.
“Instead of sitting back and judging, why can’t people come down and talk to us like you are?” says Nicole. “If people actually spend time with us, they’d know we aren’t all that bad.”