Larry Gardner has been houseless for the past six months. He left his wife, child, and housing to care for his brother who is blind, houseless, and in need of 24-hour assistance. 

For the first five months, Gardner and his brother found shelter at the Santa Cruz Benchlands, a stretch of land directly bordering the San Lorenzo River. They set up their tent close to the shore of the river on the southern end of the Benchlands, which increases in elevation above sea level as you continue north along the river. As the rains on Dec. 13 got heavier, water from the river overwhelmed the southern tip of the Benchlands and flooded shelters. 

“It was a natural disaster for people that live outside,” Gardner said. “Their home was in the way of a stream that hasn’t flooded in years. They didn’t think it was gonna flood again, but it did.”      

The flooding combined with the biting winter cold created dire conditions for those at the Benchlands. As water poured into the encampment, sleeping bags, tents, and other possessions were destroyed. As the water nearly flooded his tent, Gardner experienced damage to his clothes, tools, and massage table which he used for his job as a masseur.  

Some were able to relocate both during and after the storm. Vera Graham, who was informed by city officials that the storm would persist, moved to Depot Park prior to it’s clearing on Jan. 18. 

“Everything got so wet. Clothes, blankets, books. My tent didn’t flood but my niece’s tent got flooded a couple of times,” Graham said.  

Graham is one of six members of her family who lived at the Benchlands at the start of the storm. Graham’s family member, Shago, said that the storm wasn’t that bad initially, only requiring minor holes in his tent to be patched with Flex Seal on a regular basis to prevent water from coming in.

But for Sam M., who also relocated from the Benchlands, the flooding was more severe. 

“Water started rising and my buddy’s tent ended up real underwater, like two feet. He had to get out,” Sam said.

Sanitation for the People (SFTP) and fellow mutual aid group Food Not Bombs (FNB) were among the community outreach groups that aided in moving people out of the flooded areas, providing warming shelters, and giving food and tents to people who lost their belongings to the storm.

Santa Cruz’s Homelessness Response Team began their outreach to those living in the lower areas of Benchlands three days before the storm, encouraging occupants to relocate to higher ground. At this time, no additional shelter was put in place and those who moved up further into San Lorenzo Park were issued fines by police officers for trespassing. Elizabeth Smith, Communications Manager for the City of Santa Cruz, claimed that this had to do with the unsuitable nature of setting up camp in the upper area of San Lorenzo Park. 

Jeremy Leonard, the Houseless Service Coordinator, while present at the Benchlands on behalf of the City of Santa Cruz, chose not to comment initially on the flooding. Leonard cited concerns about misconceptions running rampant through the community about their response. 

Community activists and houseless individuals alike pointed to a systematic failure of the city, noting a lack of planning by city officials to mitigate the risk of severe weather on the lowland encampment.

“It’s not like Santa Cruz is a stranger to disaster. They have been moving people in and out of fire zones and flood zones for decades,” said Joy Schendledecker, a member of SFTP. “How can they not make a plan that takes this into account? If you don’t have the plan, then you end up with what we just experienced, which was just a miracle that nobody died directly from those storms.”

Usually, Santa Cruz County sets up a winter shelter during the winter storm season, but did not do so this season, according to Elizabeth Smith. The county stated in an email that the Benchlands flooding was a city matter. 

Larry Imwalle, the Homelessness Response Manager for the City of Santa Cruz, asserted that the city’s role involved risk assessment of the flood by monitoring the flow rate of the river. Imwalle additionally mentioned outreach efforts to warn the encampment’s residents and evacuate them to the Riverfront garage, which acted as the temporary shelter. 

“We helped facilitate moving people out of those areas, we provided transportation for those who needed it,” said Imwalle. “Clearly, what happened is what we discovered, not many people actually heeded that advice.” 

Despite that warning, Schendledecker noted that the absence of safe spaces for the houseless could explain the hesitation and refusal of many Benchlands occupants to leave. She further emphasized the high level of mistrust felt by the unhoused towards the city. 

“You know, people aren’t willing to move if they don’t have a place that they know is okay to be,” said Schendledecker, “They’ll take their chances where they are, they’ll stay awake all night, just watching, ready to go if they need to flee.”

The city also has a history of its unwillingness to cooperate with community outreach groups known for working directly with the houseless population. FNB was recently forced to relocate, the latest of numerous location stand-offs with city officials. 

According to Keith McHenry, the co-founder of FNB, attempts for help went unanswered. He mentioned trying to contact Larry Imwalle during the flood, but received no response from him.

In a later interview with City on a Hill Press, Leonard admitted that the city and some community outreach groups did not work together. He emphasized the necessity of better cooperation between the two entities. 

“If people could work together a little better without throwing each other under the bus all the time, I think we would get somewhere with homeless services,” said Leonard. “I think that’s going to be necessary to move forward.”

A month and a half after the flood, most of those who endured the storm are still at the Benchlands. However, Gardner, Vera, Shago, and Sam got out of the Benchlands, moving to a transitional community camp on River Street.

Gardner continues to care for his brother who moved with him, and says that the new camp is quieter with less movement, and he is enjoying the fact that he has a clean bathroom. Although he’s at a nicer place, he hasn’t stopped thinking about what more could be done for people like him. 

“There’s no help for the homeless, because they’re homeless. That’s not right,” Gardner said. “There’s nothing really for the homeless unless they go to [the county office] and sign a piece of paper. But until they do that, there’s nothing people can do for them because they don’t know if they’re here or not.” 

** Sam M. only provided his last initial to City on a Hill Press. 

City on a Hill Press issued a correction to this article on Jan. 27 to clarify a sourcing timeline.