Encampment Residents Still Wait for Housing

Opening for temporary housing pushed back indefinitely

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*Source preferred to use only their first names

With the rainy season about to begin, 54 people living in a temporary Santa Cruz houseless encampment on River Street will continue living in tents for at least another six months.

The city of Santa Cruz had planned for a July opening of a temporary shelter, but pushed back plans indefinitely after the city failed to receive approval for any of the four proposed sites it examined as possible locations.

Meanwhile, 48 tents of every style, most with tarps on top, are packed in rows four deep at the temporary camp at 1220 River Street, enclosed by a chain-link fence and shipping containers. The encampment offers a large, open communal tent, where dinner is cooked and served daily and where movies are shown three nights a week. The encampment also provides a shower trailer, porta-potties and water.

Tarp-clad tents run the length of the encampment at 1220 River St. The tents offer camp residents makeshift shelter and relief from the elements. Photo by Glenn Wohltmann.

“The River Street camp was really supposed to be just a four-month project, emergency response as it relates to the [unauthorized] encampment at the San Lorenzo Park,” said Susie O’Hara, principal management analyst for the city of Santa Cruz, adding the San Lorenzo encampment had an outbreak of Hepatitis A that began in April 2017.

Part of the problem with finding a new location is opposition from nearby residents, said Chris Monteith, program manager for the River Street encampment. Delaveaga neighbors circulated petitions opposing the original plan for the shelter at the National Guard Armory, prompting city officials to seek out other neighborhoods without luck.

“[A] lot of the residents in those neighborhoods were reluctant to have a program there,” Monteith said. “There was no place that we could situate our encampment.”

The long-range forecast for Santa Cruz calls for intermittent rains through fall and winter, which could leave residents cold and damp at night. A 2014 government survey notes that not only are houseless people more likely to become sick during wet weather, they’re also more likely to suffer from depression.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding structural protection, many River Street residents are happy to at least have a consistent place to stay for now.

Jennette* is both a resident and an employee of the encampment who moved there in June with her partner.

“We’ve got cover, we’ve got sleeping bags, we’re good,” she said. “It’s nice to keep our stuff in one spot and not have to worry about where we’re going to sleep tonight or tomorrow night and we don’t have to keep packing it up every morning.”

Chris Monteith, River Street program manager, said the encampment is expected to remain where it is, its residents outdoors, through the winter and probably into the spring.

“Where we stand now, officially we are funded through April 15 and we’ll see what happens then,” Monteith said.

Susie O’Hara, principal management analyst for the City of Santa Cruz, admits funding for the encampment is a pricey proposition.

“On average, at the beginning of the River Street camp, we were spending about $90,000 a month, and that’s split between the staffing, which is about $55,000 a month, and the infrastructure,” she said.

There are three shifts, two with three employees and one with two, that staff the encampment full time.

The city has renegotiated contracts with some of the service providers for the encampment, which reduced the operating cost to about $75,000 a month. O’Hara said the cost is in line with providing temporary housing for the same number of residents in a traditional shelter.

She said she wishes the encampment could hold more people because of the economy of scale.

“We could serve a lot more people for the same price if we had more space,” O’Hara said.

The residents of the encampment make up only a small percentage of the more than 2,200 houseless people in Santa Cruz, 80 percent of whom have no shelter. Arrangements that could provide sleeping space for some of the remaining houseless people during the fall and winter include a Salvation Army shelter, the Warming Center and potential renovation of the Homeless Services Center.

“We are really just trying to get a roof over people’s’ heads,” O’Hara said. “We do have our coldest and wettest months coming and we’re trying to be cognizant of that.”