The City of Santa Cruz closed down the houseless encampment in the benchlands of San Lorenzo Park Wednesday, dispatching park rangers and Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) officers to help take down tents. Houseless residents were given notice to vacate the area, and encouraged to relocate to a new city- run encampment at 1220 River St.
As of March 1, houseless residents will no longer be permitted to camp in the park. Santa Cruz Police Chief Andrew Mills said San Lorenzo Park was just one of five sites throughout the city where these relocation and “cleanup” efforts are being conducted.
Simultaneously, SCPD also had special detail officers on the scene to issue warrants for probation violations and look for stolen property. Multiple officers, including Mills, were seen performing searches. Mills said the searches led to 14-15 arrests throughout the city in the course of the relocation effort.
Some of the houseless persons that police encountered, Mills also said, were originally from other communities, such as Mendocino or Aptos, and were instructed to return to their hometowns.
Houseless advocate Brent Adams said only about a third of those who used to sleep in the benchlands were able to secure one of the few places available in the new River Street site. Many of the spaces were already reserved for members of the Downtown Streets Team.
“Some of them are going into the encampment […] many more are going to just be left in the wind,” Adams said. “A lot of people are not going to utilize the service.”
Adams said the River Street site costs the city $90,000 per month. River Street program manager Chris Monteith said the site will provide showers and sanitation services, one meal a day, mental and physical health services, storage and shelter.
Chief Mills said there were only 61 spaces available in the facility, all of which had already been filled. Monteith, however, said there were just 50 spaces available at the site.
“This is the first phase of a three- phase program,” Monteith said. “The second, in an estimated four months, the city and county will have rented a permanent fixed building. This program will transition into what’s called a navigation center, where all services will be provided there and there will be shelter beds overnight.”
The final phase of the program will involve the city purchasing a building as a permanent site for these services. Monteith estimates the city will make this purchase a year to a year and a half after phase two.
Houseless residents were given the opportunity to sign up for a spot at the River Street site in the past week before the relocation process began. However, this opportunity was extended by uniformed officers arriving at the benchlands and going tent-to-tent. Many houseless persons stayed in their tents during this time, leaving them unaware of the signup process and unable to secure a spot for themselves, houseless resident Mark Hemersbach said.
“They’re going to be going back to the old campgrounds in and around the greater Santa Cruz downtown area,” Hemersbach said. “They’re going to be establishing their own campgrounds again and they’ll just start the cycle all over until more spots open up elsewhere.”
While Hemersbach signed up for the new encampment at 1220 River St. and is grateful to the city for at least funding some kind of program to provide houseless people with shelter and security, he ultimately has mixed feelings about the way the program is run.
City on a Hill Press previously reported that the River Street site will not be allowing unrestricted travel to and from the encampment, located more than a mile from downtown, and houseless residents who stay there may only use periodic shuttles to travel. The site will also have 24- hour police presence, with a mobile police kiosk parked across the street.
“I feel like a lab rat being told when I can and cannot come out of my cage,” Hemersbach said. “I’m grateful for it, but I think it’s the wrong approach. They need to have an open-door policy, to some degree.”
River Street program director Chris Monteith said while security parameters are still in effect, the program plans to reevaluate its security needs within the next month. He also said the no walk-on, no walk-off policy would be enforced in a flexible manner.
“We can’t keep them here, they can leave,” Monteith said. “We will accommodate people who are working and make arrangements with them so that if they have to walk-on or walk-off, they can do that.”
Santa Cruz is projected to experience a significant amount of rain in the next few days, which may present a challenge for houseless persons unable to get a space at the River Street site.