Although the Santa Cruz City Council had the opportunity to declare a houseless crisis at Tuesday’s meeting, it did not, instead opting to move the issue to the March 19 meeting. This meeting was the third in a series of City Council meetings concerning houselessness in Santa Cruz.

The 5-2 decision, with councilmembers Drew Glover and Chris Krohn in the minority, was reached after issues related to lack of clarification arose from the crisis declaration, and a desire to have further discussion on the matter. This emergency declaration would have given the council some leeway when making decisions related to houseless individuals. Without the declaration, such decisions will be subject to further review.

Brent Adams discusses the proposed transitional encampment. Photo by Sean D. Ross.

“If they’re going to do this, they need to listen to us more,” said a houseless representative of the Gateway Plaza encampment, who declined to provide a name. “We don’t want to be there any more than they want us there.”

The Gateway Plaza encampment is of special interest in these discussions, because it currently stands as one of the largest houseless encampments in Santa Cruz County. The future of the residents has been a heavily discussed issue.

The council then postponed a vote on the proposal to create transitional encampments and safe parking zones at six distinct zones throughout Santa Cruz at Tuesday’s meeting. These are designed as temporary spaces for houseless individuals that aid them in finding homes. Many community members took issue with this initial plan and were glad City Council postponed the item for further discussion.

“A lot of these people in the Gateway Plaza encampment wouldn’t feel safe in these proposed areas, and the discussion needs to be advanced,” said Alicia Kuhl, representative for Conscious in Action, a local houseless advocacy group.

Many other community members were upset with the lack of a declaration, as they voiced concerns of immediate public health issues associated with the Ross encampment. Dr. Arnold Leff, Santa Cruz County health officer, spoke before the council to discuss his findings about the houseless issue and public health.

Residents packed into the City Council meeting that extended beyond midnight. The topic of the encampment dominated the discussion. Photo by Sean D. Ross

“We are concerned with this issue. […] The reality is that we need to deal with syringe programs and we need medically assisted treatment to deal with this issue,” Leff said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Leff cited several problems related to issues with houselessness that he felt drastically affected public health. The Hepatitis A outbreak in Santa Cruz in 2017, infestations of rats at the Gateway Plaza encampment, and an estimated 300 and 600 syringes used at the Gateway Plaza encampment everyday were just some of the incidents he listed.

Carol Walker, a longtime resident of the Tannery, a complex of artist lofts situated near the encampment, reiterated Leff’s findings in her own concerns.

“The Gateway Plaza encampment has taken a toll on our personal lives at the Tannery, and we are stuck in an unacceptable situation,” Walker said, “the declaration of an emergency would be imperative to our safety.”

Amid these discussions of agendizing and postponing plans, many representatives of houseless individuals felt that the council lacked concern for the immediate conditions of Gateway Plaza encampment residents and all houseless individuals.

“All of this is just focused on wanting to close the Gateway Plaza encampment, and not about actually dealing with the issues of homeless people,” said Robert Norse, a founder of the Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF) organization. “We needed this urgent declaration now more than ever.”