Photo courtesy of Alicia Kuhl

Within a week of its opening, Santa Cruz police evicted over 50 individuals from Camp Phoenix for trespassing.

Officers arrived around 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 15 and told Camp Phoenix residents to vacate the premises. Police cordoned off camp entrances, preventing residents from reentering and gathering their belongings.

The Santa Cruz chapter of the California Homeless Union (CHU) opened Camp Phoenix on Nov. 10 on property owned by the state and city. “No trespassing” signs were posted around the camp after residents were evicted. 

Although some of the evicted residents were given two-day motel vouchers, most did not receive anything, said Alicia Kuhl, President of the Santa Cruz CHU. 

“They’re supposed to be our peace officers, supposed to be protecting us,” said temporary resident of Camp Phoenix Lashauna Allan. “How are [houseless people] supposed to become better in society and humanity when we’re just uprooting them and not allowing them to get comfortable and have a home?”

Legal Action

The Santa Cruz City Council posted a new job opening for “Homelessness Response Manager” on Nov. 14, a day before the Camp Phoenix eviction. The annual salary for the position would be over $100,000. 

“[This job posting] constitutes an admission by the City of Santa Cruz that they did not have adequate alternative shelter available and went ahead on Friday, despite these admissions, and broke up the camp,” said CHU General Counsel Anthony Prince. “They disregarded the ninth circuit’s decision in Martin v. Boise […] The one arrest that they made was an illegal arrest. There was no legal basis for that arrest.” 

Santa Cruz City Manager Martín Bernal said individuals were evicted from Camp Phoenix for trespassing, not camping, so the city did not violate Martin v. Boise. Each evicted individual was offered a motel voucher and alternative shelter at either Laurel Street Community Center or River Street Camp, according to Bernal. 

However, Prince said the city is using trespassing as a means of bypassing the ninth circuit’s ruling. 

The Santa Cruz CHU argued in federal court in April that the shutdown of the Ross Camp, a makeshift encampment that stood in the same place as Camp Phoenix, would force houseless individuals to seek shelter in unsafe locations. Deseire Quintero, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, died on Oct. 27 after a tree fell on her tent in Pogonip, where she had relocated after the Ross Camp shut down in April. She was never provided with alternative housing or a motel voucher, according to a CHU press release. 

Quintero’s son, Marcos Quintero, retained legal counsel from the CHU and plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the city before the end of the year.

Two days after the shutdown of Camp Phoenix, a volunteer with Food not Bombs found Bonny Hill, a houseless woman, dead on the sidewalk outside of Penny Ice Creamery in Downtown Santa Cruz. It’s unknown whether she had been staying at Camp Phoenix. 

“She was dead for about three hours before anyone even noticed her,” said Santa Cruz CHU President Alicia Kuhl. “If we had a camp or an alternative option, that wouldn’t have happened to her. She would’ve been safe in a tent and we would’ve been looking in on her. It’s just sad.” 

Lucero Luna Arrested for Trespassing 

Santa Cruz police officers told Camp Phoenix residents that if they didn’t comply with the eviction they would be arrested. Lucero Luna, member of the CHU, was arrested on the day of the eviction on four separate counts. Three of those counts date back to a seven day period in July 2016.

Luna failed to appear in court three times, which led the police department to issue a warrant for her arrest in 2016, but they never took her into custody because she left Santa Cruz. Luna was eventually arrested on Nov. 15 for trespassing, as well as her prior three counts. At a Nov. 19 hearing to determine whether to release Luna from custody, Luna’s attorney said Luna never appeared in court for her three prior counts because she had found housing in Ventura.

At the hearing, Judge Timothy Schmal raised concerns as to whether or not Luna would appear in court at a later date if she were to be released from custody. Luna’s friends and supporters in the audience stated through the public defender that if Luna was released, they would help make sure she appears for her future court date. 

Schmal set a jury trial date for Dec. 16 and set bail at $500. Members of CHU posted bail on Nov. 21.

Police block former Camp Phoenix residents from entrances to the grounds. Photo Courtesy of Alicia Kuhl

The City’s Response

In an online blog post on Nov. 14, Santa Cruz Chief of Police Andrew Mills showed support for the reproposal of a previously overturned camping ordinance. In September 2018, the ordinance prohibited individuals from sleeping outdoors in public spaces between 11 p.m. and 8:30 a.m., regardless of circumstances. 

In his post Mills said he supports rewriting the ordinance to restrict individuals from camping during the day. Tents that are set up at night would have to be taken down during the day. Mills also said if the city were to pass an amendment to the camping ordinance, the Santa Cruz Police Department would rigorously enforce it. 

“Sleeping at night is one thing, but leaving tents up during the day and hauling in mounds of personal property, furniture and miscellaneous equipment and material is an unattractive nuisance, and monopolizes public property in a way that is unfair to the rest of the community,” Mills said in the blog post. 

In opposition to Mill’s post, Santa Cruz CHU President Alicia Kuhl said houseless individuals can’t wait until night to have somewhere to rest, especially those with physical disabilities. Fifty-five houseless individuals died in Santa Cruz in 2018, a 49 percent increase from 2016. 

Santa Cruz City Manager Martín Bernal recognized the need for more housing in Santa Cruz, and agreed that more needs to be done to address the housing crisis in the city.

“I think a lot of people think that the city alone should do it,” Bernal said. “It’s not that the city doesn’t want to do it. It’s just that it’s not the reality of how things can be done. If the state government wanted to give the responsibility and the resources to us to do it, we’d be happy to do it. But the reality is that this isn’t the way it works.”

Concerned with the lack of shelter in Santa Cruz with the winter approaching, CHU plans to relocate Camp Phoenix on Nov. 25. 

“The Santa Cruz Chapter of the Homeless Union provided safe shelter, community, services and protections for somewhere between 50 and 75 people and there would’ve been a lot more coming in,” said CHU General Counsel Anthony Prince. “We did more as a union in one week than the City of Santa Cruz has done with all of their resources in over 20 years.” 

Additional reporting by Jamie Moddelmog.