By Matt Skenazy
After county-wide flood warnings, the storm that hit Santa Cruz County last week dropped five inches of rain in Boulder Creek and over an inch in the coastal area. Gusts of wind reached 35 mph in Watsonville and one motorist on Highway 1, just north of Wilder Ranch, died due to the wet road conditions.
Brad deals with weather extremes daily, in every possible way.
“I throw on some thermal underwear and that makes me a couple of degrees warmer,” he said, rocking back and forth on his heels.
Brad, who didn’t wish to give his full name, has been homeless for the last 17 years. Although local shelters cater to some of the needs of the homeless, there are only about 160 spaces available on any given night for the estimated 1500 to 2000 homeless in Santa Cruz.
“Your only choices when it gets like this is [either] a grove of wood with a good overhang or tents and tarps to keep you dry,” Brad said. “’Because once you get wet, then you’re in trouble.”
Brad explained the rawness and the allure of living the camper lifestyle: hiding camp from police and other campers, tramping through the woods and the mud, and waking up at 5:45 a.m. to pick up garbage in order to “have good karma for pan handling.”
There are shelter options for the homeless. In winter months the Homeless Service Center (HSC) opens a winter shelter at the Santa Cruz National Guard Armory for the increased demand for beds.
Ken Cole, executive director of the HSC, said, “If the temperatures are low and we have demand above the armory capacity, we will most likely open some space at our day center to take the overflow from the armory program.”
However, not all homeless people see it as a gift from above.
“I’d rather be outside than in the armory,” Brad said. “[Outside] it’s grit, man, like warfare.”
Robert Norse, of Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF), explained that many homeless people don’t want to go to the armory because of the poor conditions. “You can get sick, you can’t work during the day, and you can’t go there if you have a pet,” Norse said in a phone interview.
Unfortunately, the cold weather, the lack of space in the shelters and the enforcement of SCMC 6.36.010b, otherwise known as the “blanket ban,” which makes it illegal to cover oneself with a blanket on public property between 11 p.m. and 8:30 a.m., leaves homeless people no choice but to suffer the elements.
“The city is using laws to drive homeless people into the rain,” Norse said, “and there are adverse health effects when this happens.” Norse mentioned the unfairness of issuing citations, which are $97, for survival activity like sleeping, or keeping warm.
According to the annual death report by the Santa Cruz County Homeless Persons’ Health Project, 36 individuals died in 2007, many from exposure to the cold, wet winter.