It’s 45 degrees, and it’s pouring. The light of a sunless day is waning. Kazoo, a member of the unhoused community, begins to realize that his tent is not going to cut it — it’s not an all-weather tent. Hearing word of an open shelter nearby, he treks on foot down Highway 9, past River Street. His shoes are soaked, and his body is drained. He makes his way past Pacific Ave. to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. 

Finally — a respite from Mother Nature’s tempest. An outpour of questions, arguments, cries, and laughter greet his ears as he walks in. 

Here, there is food, warmth, and blankets. 

“I finally understand why homeless people keep walking at night and sleep during the day,” Kazoo said. “It’s so cold at night that we have to keep walking to keep warm.”

But during the storms, this tactic of staying warm became unfeasible. 

Kazoo is just one of over 2,300 members of the houseless community who were forced to endure a series of atmospheric rivers that hit Santa Cruz County with unprecedented magnitude in late December and early January.

The Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium opened as a 24/7 emergency disaster shelter on Jan. 4 to aid anyone who sought safety from the storm, including those who were issued evacuation warnings and orders. The majority of people who ended up using the shelter were unhoused. 

However, almost as quickly as it opened, it was shut down. After just three days, a lack of resources and trained personnel forced the auditorium to close its doors. 

With that news and more atmospheric rivers on the way, the City of Santa Cruz partnered with Santa Cruz Free Guide to open an emergency shelter in the Freight Building at Depot Park on Jan. 8.

The Santa Cruz Free Guide is a non-profit program that provides services and a pocket size informational sheet for those struggling with housing insecurity. It’s printed in both Spanish and English.

Kazoo was waiting in line well before the proposed opening time of 8 p.m. As the time rolled around, no one with keys to the building was in sight. 

“They made us wait until 8:30 p.m.,” said Kazoo. “For an old guy like me, it’s hard to wait in the cold so long.”

Evan Morrison, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Free Guide, along with Maile Earnest, the program’s manager, said they had less than a 48 hour notice from the City that it wanted them to open a shelter. Even so, Morrison and Earnest were happy at the quick turnaround in both the City’s response and their own execution. 

“City staff and elected officials have inherited this problem,” Morrison said. 

“I have a lot of confidence in the City now. They moved a lot quicker than I’ve seen happen in my years of working with the unhoused population,” Earnest said. 

The shelter opened following the City’s notice. Since then, it has gone in and out of operation several times, with its last day being Jan. 21. 

Beecher, who worked at the warming center when it first opened, said this center was more accommodating than some of the others open in the city and that he wished more people would have known about it. 

“They only gave us a day’s notice. Only 24 hours to tell people that the center is opening, which wasn’t enough time,” Beecher said. 

The shelter turned away about 10-15 people a night.

This is Jorge, a member of the unhoused community. He spoke of his experience during the storm, saying he was lucky to have found safety in the highlands of Highway 9. He previously stayed at the Benchlands until it was closed down officially early November of last year.

Photo by Rachel Raiyani.

Beecher talked about the appeal of the shelter, saying it allowed people to leave during its hours of operation, whereas places like the National Guard Armory locked people in from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. He alluded that that type of rule was enforced to discourage people from leaving to use drugs.  

However, he thought the City could have planned differently when choosing the space for the shelter.

“We could have had a bigger building,” Beecher said. “But that means the city has to approve.”

Many members of city and county government are unsure whose jurisdiction the support of the houseless population falls under. 

“Who’s in charge of funding or location?” said Robert Ratner, the director of the Housing for Health Division. “It’s just not clear and that’s why we have a problem.”  

The Housing for Health Division under the county government was launched in November 2020. It is a new program that focuses on fostering community and collectively preventing houselessness.

According to Ratner, even though cities decide when and where shelters get placed through their geographic jurisdiction, it’s hard to keep them open year-round without county support. Cities are generally in charge of public property and public safety, whereas the county is responsible for health and human services. 

Even if operating shelters were economically sustainable, some members of the unhoused community are still reluctant to use them.

Sammy, another member of the houseless community, stayed in his car. Even during the storms, he refused to go to the Depot Park warming center, or the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. He feels that having such a large amount of people in such a small space brews trouble.

“It’s like a prison, that’s why I didn’t go there,” Sammy said.

Even some of those who tried to escape the elements to the Civic Auditorium felt it to be too much. 

An anonymous source spoke about his brief visit to the auditorium.

“They just didn’t have enough security to police people and their habits.”

The source went on to describe their night during the height of the deluge. Instead of choosing to stay in the auditorium, they chose to sleep near Santa Cruz’s City Hall. 

“I was sleeping between City Hall and got targeted by the cops for sleeping,” said the source. “We don’t need to be hunted like that for sleeping.”

They felt that some cops seemed to hunt the unhoused for sport. They also expressed their desire for people to not feel upset or threatened upon seeing houseless people sleeping on the street. He wondered how they could do harm when they are asleep. 

Keith McHenry, the co-founder of Food Not Bombs, reflected on his own recent brush-in with the Santa Cruz Police Department when he tried to serve food to the unhoused population.

Food Not Bombs, a community-based non-profit, provides food to the unhoused community. Photo by Mia Pabros.

McHenry was arrested on Dec. 27 for using space in Parking Lot 10 next to Wells Fargo to serve food during the storm. The police told Mchenry would receive a citation if they stayed in the garage for more than 15 minutes for trespassing and loitering. 

They were given a 15-minute timer, and anyone who stayed after the timer went off would be arrested.

“We couldn’t stay outside. The wind was too much, and our tents were ripping,” McHenry said. “We needed to feed people.”

He was in jail for a total of 11 hours. While some left before the timer went off to avoid breaking parole or any brush-in with law enforcement, others followed McHenry.  

“I started to see my friends coming into the jail, smiling,” McHenry said. “They were just so happy to be out of the rain. That, to me, was so sad.” 

Justin Cummings, Santa Cruz County’s third district supervisor, mentioned that when the storms hit, Santa Cruz City Manager Matt Huffaker reached out to him to open more warming shelters. 

“We met with the City Manager and the Mayor, and it really was an opportunity to discuss what this relationship is going to look like moving forward — how we are going to work in coordination and what does that disaster response plan actually look like,” said Cummings. 

According to Ratner, it would cost Santa Cruz County $22 million  for 600 additional shelter beds. Currently, local funds total $1.5 million. There is an extra $7 million from federal and state,  leaving almost a $14 million gap aside from donations from non-profit organizations. In contrast to the pandemic, when there were over 1,100 shelter beds, there are now fewer than 350.

“[The city] keeps spending more money on shelters, but not on people having actual homes,” Ratner said when addressing the lack of space across shelters.

Though the city and county managed to respond to the storm and aid the houseless population this time, the work to mitigate the harm is far from over. 

The population of unhoused individuals is still growing. The threats to property, land, and people are imminent as the climate continues to change. 

The first targets of all this change? The most vulnerable. 

“We’re out here trying to survive,” Sammy said. “People here need to watch out for their own self.”