Sunlight poured in through the oak trees. A small group of inhabitants sat and talked next to Highway 9, passing cigarettes and a lighter back and forth. It’s an ordinary Friday morning in the Pogonip encampment.
The encampment is distinctive: living spaces, mostly made up of tents and tarps, fill the thickly-forested hillside. Bicycles and dogs are everywhere. The terrain is steep, but steps have been carved into the dirt in several places. At the top of the hill, behind many of the living spaces, are the train tracks. Beyond them yawns the open forest.
But a host of white papers taped to trees and tent flaps signals a disruption to their everyday life. On May 22, city workers, accompanied by police, put up notices for residents to vacate the encampment by May 29.
Between prior large-scale closures at encampments like the Benchlands and low interest in temporary housing, many unhoused people feel like they are trapped in a never-ending cycle of bouncing from illegal encampment to illegal encampment.
Squat (who used a pseudonym), a former inhabitant of Sycamore Grove, had been forced to leave her space and move to Pogonip just a week prior.
“It’s a continuous rat race, just chasing us around,” Squat said. “It’s a constant [cycle] of us just losing all our possessions and starting over again.”
The Santa Cruz City Council voted in favor of the Pogonip closure during a meeting on May 9.
Larry Imwalle, the Homelessness Response Manager for the City of Santa Cruz, cited fire risk as the main motivator for the sweep. But the encampment is also close to the San Lorenzo river watershed, and issues with waste pose a significant risk. Some waste, like loose syringes, fall under the category of biohazards.
The high population numbers, along with the steep terrain, make for a logistically complex cleanup. The full, phased closure will take well over a month (or longer) and cost up to $250,000. The city hired a team from Clean Team Associates, a company that specializes in illegal dumping, hazmat, and encampment cleanup, to assist police and city officials. Contractors had also been used for the cleanup in Sycamore Grove.
The proposal, which referred only to the removal of “debris” in Pogonip, made little reference to the people living there. One sentence noted that “city staff do not feel safe working in and around the Pogonip without a police escort.”
The City is required to offer temporary housing to every displaced Pogonip resident who requests it. Imwalle highlighted three principal options: the City Overlook shelter (also known as the Armory) run by the Salvation Army, the transitional encampment at 1220 River St. run by the city, and a shelter on Coral Street run by Housing Matters, a local non-profit.
However, of the 241 unhoused people displaced at last year’s Benchlands closure, only 95 pursued a temporary housing option offered by the city. Many of the remaining people moved to the encampment at Pogonip. Likewise, only seven of the about thirty people displaced from the previous Sycamore Grove sweep accepted shelter.
The City of Santa Cruz estimates that 75 to 100 people call the Pogonip encampment home. Toby Kirkman, a Pogonip inhabitant, guessed on Monday that there were “200, at least.”
Many Pogonip inhabitants acknowledged that the encampment has big problems. Theft, for instance, is common, as is severe mental illness and drug abuse. But these are typical of most larger encampments.
When it comes to waste management, however — which the city cites as a reason for the closure — several alleged that the city played a role in the problem.
Suzanne Winchel, a landscaper, has lived in the Pogonip area for five years. She described situations in which the city supplied the encampment with a dumpster or asked the inhabitants of the encampment to move all their waste to the side of Highway 9 for removal. Then, dumpsters disappeared after being filled, or the piles of waste sat on the side of the road for extended periods of time. As a result, these strategies didn’t do much to keep the encampment clean on a consistent basis.
Another inhabitant named Sonny pointed to the piles of trash still sitting on the side of Highway 9.
“We’re doing our job by bringing the debris down,” Sonny said. “It’s been several Mondays, and they’re still not picking it up.”
Yet another inhabitant, Chris, painted a simpler picture.
“[The city] waits for it to become a mess, so they have an excuse to kick us out,” Chris said.
Other inhabitants pointed to the fact that some occupants simply didn’t — or, due to mental health issues, drug problems, or general malaise, couldn’t — put in the effort required to keep their spaces clean.
From Larry Imwalle’s perspective, though, the Pogonip encampment is a non-starter. It’s illegal for anyone to camp anywhere in Pogonip. He also emphasized the logistical difficulty of providing waste management with any consistency.
Overall, for many residents of the Pogonip encampment, the future remained uncertain as late as the 9 a.m. deadline on Monday. Some residents who had received the flier designating them as part of the first phrase had left the encampment. But many more were still there.
Toby Kirkman was one such inhabitant. When asked by City on a Hill Press (CHP) where he’d go, he winced.
“What would you do if your whole world stopped existing?” Kirkman asked in response. “What would you do?”
Most of the Pogonip inhabitants CHP talked to weren’t planning to take up the city on their offer for temporary housing. Some cited past negative experiences with shelters. Others lambasted the strict rules and curfews.
Still others doubted that the City of Santa Cruz had enough shelter space for them. Imwalle believed that there is still sufficient capacity to provide accommodations to those interested in shelter.
“The work of our outreach team and other service providers isn’t focused only on housing navigation,” he said. “It’s also trying to identify other kinds of support services. Oftentimes that means addressing other kinds of issues, like employment and health needs.”
Squat’s forecast for the future of the unhoused in Santa Cruz is hopeful, but realistic.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Squat said. “We’re not listening to each other.”
Squat is arachnophobic. At night, the woods of Pogonip are unnerving and spider-filled. This makes living there difficult. But Squat was determined to stay there — to get away from everyone and make her own way.
When CHP asked Squat where she’d go after the sweep, her answer was simple.
“Deeper into the woods,” Squat said. “As far as I can go.”