A moving illustration of houseless people reading a book and watering plants, with a notice to move on the wall next to them.
Art by Willow Gelphman.

Along the San Lorenzo Riverwalk, houseless residents can be seen biking, gardening, napping, and even lifting weights under the warmth of the spring sun. This is as close to idyllic as the park has been in recent months. 

But this relative quiet is deceptive. The preliminary injunction that kept the city from clearing its encampment has been modified to allow it to move residents of San Lorenzo Park further out of sight. 

On April 1, Judge Susan Van Keulen ruled that the City of Santa Cruz is allowed to demarcate 122 individual campsites along the lower bank of the San Lorenzo River, away from the main park, playground area, and bowling green. In doing so it will create a permit system that matches one park resident to each campsite. Those without permits those who fail to abide by a code of conduct laid out by the city would be asked to leave the park. 

This comes as an update to Van Keulen’s previous ruling in Homeless Union et al., v. Martin Bernal, which has barred the city from removing houseless residents of San Lorenzo park from their campsites since January of this year.

“What we’ve done here is we forced the city to follow CDC guidelines regarding this encampment,” said Alicia Kuhl, president of the Santa Cruz Homeless Union. “That’s protected the whole community, that’s protected the individuals in the encampment, and it’s protected the community from increased exposure to COVID-19.”

Van Keulen emphasized that as long as COVID-19 continues to be a potential risk for the population, the order will still stand. But her legal rationale for preventing any sweep is contingent on the presence of COVID-19 due to the CDC guidelines advising against moving outdoor unhoused encampments.

The City’s Proposal laying out 122 campsites along the San Lorenzo River. Highlighted in red is the approximate area of the original Benchlands encampment that was forced to close in November 2020 due to flooding risk. Courtesy of the City of Santa Cruz.

City communications manager Elizabeth Smith explained that the city is operating on the expectation that this modification will be a temporary solution to appease residents living near the park as long as the injunction is still in effect. The decision to place camping spots on the lower banks of the San Lorenzo reflects this short term thinking, given that the last managed encampment on the lower bank of the San Lorenzo, the Benchlands, was forced to close in Nov. 2020 due to potential flooding risk from winter rains.

“This is really about moving the campers away from the businesses and residents over there who have been suffering immensely during this time,” Smith said. 

The city has yet to come up with a camping permit system, although Smith said that can be expected to take effect sometime in late April concurrent with a cleanup of the park and setup of the camping sites.

Most residents in the park are unaware of the change in the temporary restraining order. The collective expectation still holds that while they are safe for now, their situation could be subject to change at any moment.

“Until I see it on a piece of paper and signed by the mayor, then I’ll believe it,” said April Rambler, a San Lorenzo park resident who had not heard about or seen a map of the new proposed camping system at the time of press. “But until that happens, I’m not leaving.”

Rambler is not alone in this sentiment, and many residents of the San Lorenzo have set up more permanent fixtures including larger tents, gardens, and art installations in the park. Moving these items, even to another location within the San Lorenzo, is nontrivial.

When the restraining order is dissolved — an inevitability as more people get vaccinated and COVID conditions improve — residents of the San Lorenzo will become subject to the Temporary Outdoor Living Ordinance (TOLO), which will force residents to pack up their belongings daily and bar them completely from camping in San Lorenzo Park. 

Currently, residents take a great deal of comfort in the community that exists in San Lorenzo, and they fear losing that community once the restraining order is dissolved by the TOLO. 

“We take care of each other,” said Leanne Sherwood, a current San Lorenzo resident. “The ones who are more high functioning take care of the ones who are lower functioning, and I’m really kind of surprised that there is so little violence out here, I would expect more.” 

Walking around the encampment, Sherwood pointed out a resident doing bike repair and another resident giving haircuts. Sherwood herself was interrupted multiple times as fellow residents would pop by asking her for a pair of scissors or some medical supplies, which she dug through her tent to retrieve with smiling eyes behind a mask. 

San Lorenzo under the TOLO will likely look different from its current iteration, but the residents are protected as long as the restraining order stands. A further status conference on the restraining order is set for April 27. 

“The park is a public place,” said Sherwood, “If they don’t have places for those of us who can’t find housing, then this is the hill we’ve decided to die on and, oh boy, is it beautiful. I couldn’t be more pleased.”