Houseless and at Risk

Santa Cruz women report dangerous conditions

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Illustration by Manne Green.

Content warning: This article contains explicit references to sexual harassment and assault. We recognize these are difficult situations to read about. We decided to include the following personal experiences in an effort to reflect the severity of the experiences of many houseless women. 

*Last name omitted to protect source’s identity.

Constant threat of assault keeps many houseless women in Santa Cruz on high alert. The City Council’s recent plan to vacate the houseless encampment by Gateway Plaza will force about 60 houseless women to find a new place to sleep. 

“When I first moved here, I woke up to a man’s penis in my face,” said houseless resident Jamie*. “I was sleeping outside on a levee and I woke up and this guy just had his junk out.” 

The uncertainty that comes with houselessness increases susceptibility to mental illness and drug addiction, Jamie said. A traumatic experience can cause lasting distress and anxiety — about one-third of sexual assault survivors experience PTSD. Not having a reliable safe place to sleep at night can also be psychologically damaging. 

Jamie has been houseless in Santa Cruz for four years. Before that, she was houseless in Arizona, Indiana and Minnesota. She lived in her car for a while, but at one point she and her husband were arrested and the police impounded her car. Jamie’s husband has been in and out of jail for months so Jamie is often by herself. In other places she could sleep in shelters, with friends or in her car, but Santa Cruz is the first place she had to sleep outside.

“The thing that strikes me is the danger that women have to face when they live outside,” said Food not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry. “A number of women have expressed that they were sexually assaulted almost immediately when they became [houseless], and they were desperate to get a shelter. But there was no shelter space.”

About 200 people live in the houseless camp near Gateway Plaza on River Street. The camp is safer than the streets, said several houseless residents who live there. At the Feb. 12 meeting, the Santa Cruz City Council announced an action plan to vacate the camp by March 15. 

Though male houseless residents make up about two-thirds of the encampment, there are still about 60 women living there who would also be displaced within two weeks if the plan is carried out, said Warming Center Program Director Brent Adams. 

The lack of long-term shelter space in Santa Cruz is an ongoing problem the action plan aims to address. City Council plans to expand shelter space at the Salvation Army building on Laurel Street and the residential property at 1220 River St. However, there still isn’t a detailed plan to create a permanent women’s shelter, so many houseless women rely heavily on the Warming Center, which is only open during extreme weather conditions. 

“We have a lot of single women using our program,” Adams said. “I don’t know how they’re doing it, it breaks my heart.”

Santa Cruz police Chief Andrew Mills said the department receives reports from houseless women of sexual assault occasionally but did not have exact numbers. There is no difference between how the Santa Cruz Police Department handles sexual assault cases for unhoused women and housed women and the department has advocates to work with the women and help them understand the investigation process, Mills said. 

“We don’t ever want houseless victims to feel they somehow deserve to be sexually assaulted,” Mills said. “No woman or man should be sexually assaulted, and we take the cases very seriously.”

Without sufficient services and job opportunities, some single houseless women become sex workers to have a source of income, Jamie said. 

When Jamie first moved to Santa Cruz, she was a sex worker. She once set up an appointment with a man at a motel near the beach. Part way through the appointment, two of the man’s friends returned to the motel room. 

“It turned into a rape-type scenario. They thought it was funny that this guy had even ordered a companion for the night, and that’s how I had my daughter,” Jamie said. “No charges were pressed because homeless people aren’t taken seriously, especially women. They figure that we shouldn’t be out here as it is. But there are no resources for women.”

Santa Cruz does not have many easily accessible mental health services for the houseless community. 

“People get frustrated that they don’t have anyone to talk to, which discourages you,” said houseless resident Nicole*. “Emotions build up. They build up stronger when you’re [houseless] than when you can go somewhere and unwind.”

The Homeless Services Center provides some mental health resources, but there are not enough advocates for the number of houseless people in need of services, Jamie said.

“I feel like right now I need somebody to coach me back into life because I don’t know how to do it, otherwise I’d be doing it,” Jamie said, tears forming in her eyes. “I have a business degree, a Masters in Economics, and I’m stuck here on the streets.”

Food not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry directs houseless survivors of sexual assault to sleep near a trusted friend of his for protection in a doorway on Front Street. It’s tragic that this is necessary, McHenry said. 

Access to a safe place to sleep, hygiene services, space to decompress and opportunities to find housing are integral to mental health. Houseless women rarely receive these things in Santa Cruz. 

The police and the city don’t prioritize the safety of houseless residents or take houseless women’s reports of sexual assault seriously, Jamie said.

“Basically, there’s no sort of urgency when it comes to people that are out here. It’s like they find joy in ‘another one bites the dust’ for us,’” Jamie said. “Lives do not matter. It’s like they’re happy to get rid of us. It’s disgusting.”