City Plans to Relocate Houseless

Concerns escalate over future encampment

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The city of Santa Cruz will pursue a different plan to address houselessness after backing out of a plan to construct a public storage center for the houseless community.

The gravel lot ringed by barbed wire fence at 1220 River St., formerly slated for the storage center, will instead become a year-round, tent-based shelter. The eventual goal is to replace San Lorenzo Park as the primary “campground” for houseless persons in Santa Cruz, said Santa Cruz City principal management analyst Susie O’Hara. The plan currently has no definite timetable, and the city has not yet selected an operator for the new facility.

“We’ve made a commitment to the community to move the folks out of the encampment at the benchlands [at San Lorenzo Park],” O’Hara said. “We hope to incentivize as many folks as we can off the benchlands, and eventually close that facility down.”

City on a Hill Press previously reported the city of Santa Cruz was pursuing the creation of a storage program to serve the city’s houseless community. Houseless persons currently have to find someone to guard their belongings or risk having everything they own being stolen in order to access or participate in various services and programs.

“Storage is crucial to homeless people for a sense of security. […] There’s no room inside of the tents for all this stuff,” said houseless resident Mark Hemersbach. “We’re not allowed to keep things outside, and if we are allowed to keep it outside we’re afraid to for fear of getting it stolen. And it almost always does.”

Barbed wire and a 24-hour police presence will maintain the no walk-on/walk-off policy at the River Street site, a policy intended to protect the houseless population camped inside. Many fear that these policies, as well as the inconvenient location of the camp, will deter the houseless population from using these resources.

The industrial containers for the storage facility had already been purchased and transported to the proposed site. The city was in talks with the Santa Cruz Warming Center to operate the program and city manager Martín Bernal said it could be expected to launch at some point in December.

“I was called in to have the meeting, and I was expecting it to be the signing meeting,” said Warming Center co-founder Brent Adams. “We had gone through all this material, we toured this site, we were given the opening date, and then […] they said, ‘Well, we’re going in a different direction.’”

The River Street site and its accompanying programs will largely be inspired by the San Diego model, first implemented in October 2017 in San Diego’s city-sanctioned houseless encampment. The San Diego encampment was created as a direct response to the Hepatitis A epidemic and the model calls for strict security measures.

“There will be no walk-on, walk-offs from the River Street site. That’s how we intend to maintain safety for the folks that are using the campground,” Susie O’Hara said. “Our project will have [private] on-site security, and in addition to that the city will be enhancing perimeter security as well as having 24-hour police presence.”

Houseless persons who live at the campground will only be able to leave or return to the campground via a periodic shuttle service, and the no walk-on/walk-off policy will be strictly enforced.

“If that is true, a lot of people are just going to go back to the doorways, back to the parking lots,” said houseless resident Mark Hemersbach. “If they’re only going to allow people in and out with a shuttle, then we might as well be in prison.”

The city still plans to use the industrial containers already on-site for storage in the new River Street campsite. In fact, O’Hara said the city prioritized developing the new campsite in part due to the practicality and efficiency of having the storage facility and the encampment in the same location.

The city is currently negotiating with prospective nonprofit partners to operate the program, and has no timetable beyond “as soon as feasible,” O’Hara said.

Warming Center co-founder Brent Adams said despite negotiations for a storage facility falling through, the Warming Center plans to pursue the creation of its own storage program without city funding.

“We’re going to deliver a large box truck with 100 bins in it, every day in the morning and in the evening to two locations in town so we go directly to where people are most likely congregating,” Adams said. “So they know that when they show up at seven in the morning, their stuff will arrive. They can put away their bedding and pick up their day bag.”

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Sean D. Ross is editor for the City News desk at City on a Hill Press. Previously, Sean served as an editor for the Investigative News desk and as a reporter for the Campus, City and Sports desks over the past two years. Before coming to UC Santa Cruz, he was News Editor for the Diablo Valley College Inquirer, contributing to the Inquirer earning the Journalism Association of Community Colleges’ “General Excellence” award at the 2016 Northern California Conference. For his coverage of California fires in the fall of 2017, Sean was awarded third prize in the California College Media Association’s Breaking News competition. Sean is pursuing a career in law, and has interned for renowned California attorney James M. Wagstaffe. Besides casually browsing LexisNexis, Sean enjoys board games of all stripes, competitive Magic: the Gathering, playing the french horn, automotive racing and the literary stylings of Neil Gaiman.