Photo by Haneen Zain

The new shelter comes in the wake of several recent deaths of houseless individuals on the streets of Santa Cruz and a general rise in houseless deaths in recent years. From 2008-16, an average of 36 houseless people died each year in Santa Cruz County. In 2017, 52 houseless residents died and in 2018, 55 died. In 2019, the Santa Cruz Homeless Union put the number between 84 and 87.

The National Guard Armory reopened on Jan. 15 for the first time in four years to serve as a temporary indoor shelter. The 80-person shelter will replace the River Street Camp, providing 20 more spaces than the old camp.  

The River Street Camp officially closed on Jan. 15 due to concerns with flooding in the site. The new shelter is run on a 24-hour basis by the Salvation Army and includes storage for residents’ items.

The city provided shuttles to relocate residents to the Armory, next to the DeLaveaga Golf Course in eastern Santa Cruz. As of 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 15, 28 tents were set up inside of the Armory. Ron Prince, special projects advisor for the city said they were halfway through the move-in process at this time. 

The Armory is also replacing the winter shelter at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) hall, which was unable to open this winter due to renovations.

“When the VFW facility was deemed not available for indoor winter shelter this year, the County and the City decided to relocate the River St. shelter indoors,” said city spokesperson Ralph Dimarucut in an email. “The next logical choice was to utilize the Armory.”

In past decades, the Armory served as a city-run nighttime winter shelter under a 1987 statewide program to shelter the houseless during the year’s coldest months. The National Guard stopped the program in winter 2016 amid plans to renovate the building.

Negotiations between the city and the National Guard began in October 2019, but it wasn’t until about two weeks ago that the two parties finalized plans to lease the Armory to the city for $12,000 for three months. The shelter will close on March 15, when renovations on the Armory are set to begin. 

Prince said the main impetus for the project was the flooding in the River Street Camp and cold outdoor conditions. After the first heavy rains, 25-30 percent of the site flooded and there was concern about water getting into the tents, Prince said.

“Once we saw how the drainage didn’t work on the site, we thought it would be good to, as soon as we possibly could, move the whole operation,” Prince said. “We were able to take advantage of existing staffing patterns and move the operation indoors in a heated  space.”

While 20 extra spaces are available at the new shelter, hundreds of unhoused people remain on the streets of Santa Cruz.

“I’m glad it’s happening, but we should be honest about what it is and what it isn’t,” said council member Sandy Brown. “I’m […] underwhelmed at what we’ve gotten from the efforts put in here.”

According to Prince, some former River Street Camp residents expressed concern about accessibility since the only access to and from the Armory is by shuttle. Residents will not be able to walk on and off the site, Prince said. 

Houseless activist Alicia Kuhl called the plan a “Band-Aid” solution and worries about the location of the Armory. She said the new project “does not make a dent” in the needs of the many unhoused on the  street. 

Houseless activists are concerned the new shelter could be seen as addressing the issue of houselessness in Santa Cruz, giving credit to the city despite the fact that the opening of the Armory coincides with the closure of the River Street Camp. 

“It’s really important to make it clear because the county and city have tried to spin this as ‘Oh, this is such a wonderful thing because it’s an expansion of winter shelter,’ but it’s really not,” Brown said. “Everybody understands that something has to happen, and so something is happening. It’s just not sufficient.”