It’s a warm Saturday afternoon and Peter Disney, a volunteer for Santa Cruz Mutual Aid, is unloading a wagon from the back of his car, comically overstuffed with thick blankets, KN95 masks, donated clothing, condoms, toothbrushes, toothpaste, antiseptic wipes, sanitation pads, Narcan, menstrual hygiene products, underwear, socks, and water.

Disney is embarking on his almost daily visit to a houseless encampment behind Evergreen Cemetery next to Highway 1 to distribute resources. Encampment residents refer to this stretch of tents as “Hell Street.”

“A lot of folks were not eligible for unemployment and there weren’t the systems and infrastructure in place to take care of folks,” Disney said. “Mutual aid is kind of this idea that we’re all in this together, and we need to take care of each other because we care about each other.”

Mutual aid funds have been making waves throughout the country since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are distinct from traditional charities, as they are smaller, more local, and completely volunteer run. Donated funds go directly to community needs. There are no administrative fees and no salaried workers.

In Santa Cruz County, two major mutual aid organizations are Santa Cruz Mutual Aid and the mutual aid subgroup of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Both operate on a similar structure: individuals donate to a GoFundMe account, and a horizontally-run group of volunteers buys and distributes resources to houseless folks and other community members in need. As they visit encampments, volunteers take note of which supplies go fastest, like tents, socks or water, and use this information to inform future purchasing decisions. 

Mutual aid organizations operate on a set of principles and practices geared toward building community relationships.

Illustration by Ryan Tran.

“You’re doing mutual aid not because you believe that you are always going to be the giver, and you’re always going to be in a position of power where you can give to people,” said Santa Cruz Mutual Aid volunteer Owen Thomas. “You do mutual aid because people who are being resourced now will hopefully be able to resource others in the future, including perhaps you. There’s a phrase that has become popular, which is ‘solidarity, not charity.’”

Both Santa Cruz organizations operate from the standpoint of harm reduction, meaning that while they understand the very real harm posed by illicit drug use, their goal is to approach it as a complex social problem without judgement. So, neither organization imposes any sobriety requirements. 

“[…] People can kind of joke about stuff like wanting to get high or whatever,” said Johanna Isaacson, a DSA volunteer, about people who show up to DSA distributions. “It’s not like this kind of thing where you have to be the morally perfect person to be allowed to have food or to be allowed to live or to be allowed some dignity.”  

After essentials like water and blankets, hygiene supplies and Narcan, a nasal spray to treat narcotic overdose, are the quickest items to leave Disney’s cart. 

Along the dirt walkway, empty soda cups filled with boxes of free Narcan hang from trees. Disney makes a point to say this distribution system was completely created by the houseless to ensure those who weren’t able to personally collect Narcan from the distribution could still have access in an emergency. 

“Harm reduction is important because it literally saves lives. The problem here isn’t that these people are bad or that they should have some sort of shame. These are members of our community who deserve to be cared about,” Disney said. “Doing anything less and hiding the problems of this community doesn’t fix anything, it just exacerbates the issue. Shame and stigma kills.”

Many houseless folks also approach Disney as the cart comes through asking to exchange dirty needles and drug supplies. Disney turns them away, since this is not a service provided by the mutual aid fund, and gives the phone number for the Harm Reduction Coalition of Santa Cruz who run a pickup and exchange program for clean needles and sharps, along with other safe injecting supplies. 

This is in contrast to the county-run camp at the Benchlands, located along the San Lorenzo River right below Water Street, where Disney notes the enforcement of policies to confiscate drugs and drug paraphernalia. Additionally, the county-run camps have limited capacity, and impose strict restrictions on the ability of houseless individuals to enter and leave the camps at will. 

Volunteers in both mutual aid organizations stress the value of meeting the houseless where they are, with the general understanding that gatekeeping access to these resources will likely result in worse outcomes. As a result, mutual aid distributors often must be tolerant of people approaching them maskless, or in manic or altered states. 

Both mutual aid funds emphasize the importance of building strong communal relationships in this time of crisis. 

“We are really interdependent,” said DSA volunteer Johanna Isaacson of the Santa Cruz community. “I really hope that this effort to take care of each other just keeps growing and growing.”