Steven Bailey has been living in the Benchlands, a city-sanctioned houseless encampment in San Lorenzo Park, for the past two years. Soon, that won’t be the case. In the eyes of the City of Santa Cruz, an eviction notice needs to be served. 

“They look at us like we’re a bunch of rats, scurrying through the trash,” said Bailey.

On Aug. 24, the Santa Cruz City Council approved plans for a four-month phased closure of the encampment.

The Benchlands is currently in the second phase of its closure, which includes a clean-up process operating on a zone-by-zone system. The encampment is divided into seven zones, with one zone cleaned out entirely on a weekly basis.

The Benchlands has previously been closed and swept by the city twice in the past four years, once in 2018 and then again in 2020. The partial bulldozing of the Benchlands has left an enormous pile of rubble at the side of the camp. Remnants of people’s personal belongings have been left in ruins for them to fish out themselves. Photo by Lucy Wald.

There have been several other attempts to clear out the Benchlands, including the Homelessness Response Action Plan (HRAP) in March.

Whereas some people see the plan as just the relocation of the occupants to a better place, residents of the Benchlands see it as displacement and destruction of their property and personal belongings.

“They are smashing everything down, and demolishing our belongings left behind so we can’t retrieve it,” Bailey said. “They need to slow down, give us a chance to at least move our stuff.”

Bailey specifically referenced another resident who lost their mother’s ashes after one area was bulldozed.

The encampment closure began in May under City Council direction. The Benchlands has been evenly divided into seven zones to be cleared ideally within seven weeks. Zones are delineated with temporary fencing panels, which in theory allows for heavy equipment to operate within its designated zone without disturbing another. At the time of writing, the seventh and final zone has been notified for closure and is scheduled to be cleared out on Nov. 1.

As for the 225 people who currently live in the Benchlands, city leaders intend on providing shelter for those who wish to receive it. The shelter offered thus far has included the City Overlook Shelter in the National Guard Armory at DeLaveaga Park, operated by The Salvation Army. It has capacity for 135 residents, with 75 tents on the Armory lawn and 60 tent spaces inside of the building.

Larry Imwalle, the Homelessness Response Manager for the City of Santa Cruz, detailed how residents are informed of zone closures.

“The process starts with a seven days advance notice of formal written notification, with a notice to every person in that zone, and then later that week we have our outreach staff engage with folks who are interested in shelter,” Imwalle said. “If they’re interested, we coordinate transportation up to the Armory facility with city staff.”

Steven Bailey, a current resident of the Benchlands, hopes that with new resources he will be able to further his education in the future. He worries that his belongings might be destroyed from bulldozing at the San Lorenzo Park. Photo by Lucy Wald.

Some residents of the Benchlands are hesitant to make the pilgrimage up to the Armory, but those who have made the move seem somewhat satisfied with their decision.

Elizabeth, who did not feel comfortable sharing her last name, is a resident at the Armory who never lived at the Benchlands herself, but visits often. She previously lived in her car after experiencing heart failure and receiving no medical attention. 

She said she is thankful to have a space where she can take her medication and have readily available restrooms, but understands why people are reluctant to make the move, because people are not used to the regulations that come with living in a facility that enforces rules such as curfews. 

“I feel like I’m going to suffocate,” Elizabeth said.

Another resident, Michael Sweatt, spoke of the alienation he and other Benchlands residents faced from city enforcement: “You can’t make people from here alien… This tree is just like any other tree, it just got some really bad fruit in it.” Photo by Lucy Wald.

The new layer of control may be smothering for some residents, but others find peace of mind knowing that they live in a more regulated environment.

Matthew Barnett, the current manager of the shelter at the National Guard Armory, has personal experience with houselessnes. He has been with the program for two and half years and has dedicated his work to serving the unhoused community. He described some of the restrictions that the Armory has in place, such as quiet hours beginning at 10 p.m., and no drugs, weapons, or alcohol allowed on site. 

“At the Benchlands, anything goes down there. Some people believe that that’s a better [arrangement] for them. And I agree,” Barnett said. “But for some people, they like the safety of knowing their neighbor doesn’t have a weapon, or they don’t want to be around drugs.”

Barnett addressed the drastic measures they take, such as bulldozing Benchland residents’ homes, as necessary evils.

“I understand that the bulldozing can seem really bad, but people have been given lots of notice to move. Lots of notice,” Barnett said. “This whole process has been going on for a long time. And yes, I’m sure people have lost a lot of stuff that they need and it is sad, but in my opinion, notices were given and I don’t know a different way.” 

However, Benchlands residents feel that bulldozing is too violent of a solution, and that the issue should be treated with more care. An anonymous resident of the Benchlands spoke about how she feels residents are being treated throughout this traumatic process — Barnett’s self-described “only way.”

“Somos seres humanos y no somos animales, para que nomás lleguen y [nos digan] órale. Deben de tener compasión…no es correcto lo que están haciendo, pero bueno, es la ley. Pues ni modo, hay que respetar, si nos están aventando como una basura, está bien.”

“We aren’t animals, we’re human beings, it’s not right for them to just come and [tell us to] get out. They need to have compassion…what they’re doing isn’t right, but well, it’s the law. We have to respect that if they are throwing us around like garbage, it’s fine.”