Lead plaintiff in the lawsuit Quintero v. City of Santa Cruz Alicia Kuhl (center) gathers with other organizers in front of the gated River Street Camp. Photo by Jamie Moddelmog.

Since the Ross Camp closed, displaced houseless residents have been living in Pogonip, along the San Lorenzo River and around town.

It’s been two weeks since the city of Santa Cruz vacated the massive houseless encampment behind Ross Dress for Less and some houseless residents and activists are unsatisfied with its replacements.

“Everybody’s scattered out now,” said Molly, a former Ross Camp resident who declined to give her last name. She said now she’s living “just wherever.”

This result was not what the city agreed to. District Judge Edward Davila permitted the closure in large part because the city promised to provide shelter for the Ross Camp residents. Some shelters have vacancies, but many houseless residents choose not to use them because of their restrictions.

The city aligned the closure with the opening of a new camp at 1220 River St. and vowed to provide motel vouchers for those who the camp did not have room for. Lead plaintiff in the ongoing lawsuit Quintero v. City of Santa Cruz Alicia Kuhl said the city did not follow through on those plans. 

“We can prove that the city has been dishonest in what they said to the court,” Kuhl said. “If you displace all these people without adequate shelter options, […] people go through all this craziness to find a place to sleep at night.”

Molly waited outside the Ross Camp for an hour and a half to get a motel voucher before city officials told her there were no more. That night she was ticketed by police for sleeping where camping was prohibited. 

The city gave other residents vouchers they were unable to use because of lack of space at Motel Santa Cruz. Kuhl said she collected numerous other declarations from former Ross Camp residents demonstrating the city’s failings in providing shelter. Since the declarations will be used as evidence in Quintero, Kuhl was unable to share them with City on a Hill Press.

Although the city intended to accommodate evicted Ross Camp residents at a temporary Salvation Army-run site at San Lorenzo Park, the site closed before the actual eviction date.

The only other option for former Ross Camp residents is the new Salvation Army-run camp at 1220 River St. It has the capacity for just over 60 people and will operate until June 30.

The 1220 River St. site is barely noticeable behind storage crates and barbed-wire fences. Individuals entering the camp are frisked for weapons, residents are closely monitored and guests are vetted by security guards. 

Some houseless residents and activists said the camp restricts its residents, while others are content with the fences and view them as necessary security.

“I didn’t stay [at the Ross Camp] because I was going to have to be violent to protect my property,” said River Street Camp resident Gary Fring. “That fence keeps people away from us. That doesn’t keep us in.”

However, houseless activists like California Homeless Union attorney Anthony Prince and Alicia Kuhl see the River Street Camp as an insufficient alternative. They organized a press conference and protest on May 13 outside the Camp’s gates where they questioned captain of the Santa Cruz Salvation Army Harold Laubach.

Residents are only allowed to leave the camp by bicycle or shuttle. The rationale for this rule — imposed by the city — is the lack of sidewalk outside the camp which could make exiting on foot unsafe.

Houseless residents expressed mixed views about the rigidity of the River Street Camp rules. Some activists were unhappy with the city’s reasoning and saw the restriction as an attempt to decrease the visibility of the houseless. Prince argued the restriction constituted a violation of the residents’ rights.

“These people are clearly not free to come and go [from the River Street Camp]. The idea that they won’t [let people leave on foot] because there’s no sidewalk here is […] the thinnest pretext I’ve ever heard,” Prince said. “I’ve been practicing law for 20 years and I smell false imprisonment here. If the city is collaborating with such a thing, that’s a concern of the Homeless Union.”

Prince said 1220 River St. doesn’t qualify as adequate alternative shelter due to its restrictions of rights. Prince intends to use this as an argument in Quintero v. Santa Cruz. The lawsuit claims the city shut down the Ross Camp without adequate alternative shelter in place, violating the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. 

All issues with the River Street Camp will be rendered irrelevant in less than two months when the camp shuts down. June is also when the two open winter shelters close. 

“The biggest issue is what’s going to happen after June 30,” said Santa Cruz Rabbi Philip Posner. “The city has mishandled the closure of the Ross Camp by not providing sufficient places for people to go.”