It’s clear why he goes by the name “Red.” His long red beard and hair are hard to miss walking along the West Cliff by Lighthouse Field. As he stood next to his home — a minivan that neighbored others living in their Recreational Vehicles (RV) — Red explained why he wanted to live near the ocean.
“It’s probably peace of mind and, for me, it’s sanity,” Red said. “My mom and grandma’s ashes are both scattered out here. I lost my family very tragically — in a horrible way — and this is the only place on the planet that brings me solace.”
During a city council meeting on Sept. 8, council members and Santa Cruz residents discussed the possibility of enacting RV parking regulations on West Cliff Drive, which incited a heated debate about drug use and houselessness in the community.
Council members and Santa Cruz Police Lt. Dan Flippo discussed the financial feasibility and actual enforcement of RV regulations, though no final decisions were made. Instead council members agreed to create a working group that studied the root of the problem and, when that is determined, a realistic solution could be implemented.
Residents and council members described the West Cliff area as the “hottest hot spot” for people living out of their RVs. Residents at the meeting claimed that the area has become a mecca for drug users over the last two years, and expressed their frustration to council members, demanding that council “clean up the city.”
“I pay $16,000 in property taxes a year and this is happening,” said West Cliff resident Ken Collins during the meeting. “We need to make this drug-using community feel uncomfortable in Santa Cruz.”
While some West Cliff residents shared stories of feeling threatened by those living out of RVs, other Santa Cruz residents like Bob Lamonica asked the council to consider the circumstances that led campers to the beach in the first place.
“If poverty is not a crime, then poverty needs to be accommodated,” Lamonica said. “There’s nothing wrong with protecting property rights, but when you push aside reality we’re going back to the 1930s. We’re talking about dignity of life here.”
Early this past June, the Homeless Services Center (HSC) lost its annual $350,000 in funding from the Housing and Urban Development due to several factors, including the federal consensus that permanent, affordable housing deserves more funding than transitional and emergency services. The cut resulted in the immediate dismissal of 28 employees and the loss of daily essential services like showers and the ability to receive mail.
When HSC began cutting services in March 2015, Food Not Bombs — a collective dedicated to nonviolence and food accessibility — and supporters like Steve Pleich began serving breakfast outside the Coral Street Campus, which evolved into the formation of the “Freedom Sleepers.” In response to the loss of HSC’s emergency shelter, the group pitches tents and rolls out sleeping bags every Tuesday outside of City Hall to affirm everyone’s right to a good night sleep, saying that to deny someone that right is cruel and unusual punishment.
“[We want] not only to bring awareness, but also to provide a place for homeless folks to come and get safe, secure shelter,” Pleich said. “And that’s what the original purpose of this was. It wasn’t for advocates to speak out — though we have — but to give homeless people themselves an opportunity to come here with us and have a place where they could stay at night.”
The loss of emergency shelter pushes houseless individuals to seek alternative places to live, like minivans and RVs, said Santa Cruz resident Nathan Kennedy to City Council.
“If we’re going to displace people, we need to open up a place in the city where they can go,” Kennedy said.
Two days after sharing his frustrations with council members, West Cliff resident Ken Collins specified that his concerns mostly apply to the intravenous drug use by Lighthouse Field and the sewage from RVs that gets dumped into the ocean.
“I’ve seen this building over the last two years especially,” Collins said. “I remember I pulled into a parking spot on the field side of the parking lot, and there was this guy shooting up heroin [in the car] right next to me. And I’m watching him with my kids and I’m just — this is unacceptable. That behavior shouldn’t be allowed anywhere.”
Collins worries for his children who play in the park and on the beach where, in the last two years, about 5,000 used needles have been found. While Collins and other West Cliff residents shared concerns about pollution, drug use and threatening personalities, Red, the young man living out of his van on West Cliff, said these issues are exceptions to the rule.
“As far as kids being safe, for the most part everybody here protects the kids,” Red said. “We try to ‘take out the trash,’ so to speak, and make sure that kind of stuff doesn’t happen, and those kinds of personalities don’t stay around too long.”
Although their perspectives differed, West Cliff property owners and houseless individuals living in their vans and RVs could agree the area was a beautiful and peaceful place to be.
“It’s like being in the center of a vortex of healing, so to speak, and this is without doing any hard drugs or burying your sorrows,” Red said. “You can just look out and everyday you see something different, or meet somebody new, or have an intellectual conversation, or have a jam with a cool musician — there’s so many different aspects and variables that make this place magical.”