Camp Phoenix Restores Hope For Change

Houseless activist’s death spurs action

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California Homeless Union member Lucero Luna stands by a tribute to Deseire Quintero. Photo by Josephine Joliff

A rising sun welcomed Santa Cruz’s newest community shelter for houseless residents. Camp Phoenix, located at the site of the former Ross Camp, opened on Nov. 10 to residents seeking shelter. 

Santa Cruz houseless residents informally reopened the encampment after city officials closed the area in May. Houseless residents reinhabiting the site lack safe housing, and their relocation to Camp Phoenix was fully supported by the Santa Cruz chapter of the California Homeless Union (CHU). 

“Housing is the greatest solution, because once you have housing, your basic needs are met, and you can take care of any secondary issues that might be affecting your life,” said Alicia Kuhl, President of Santa Cruz’s CHU chapter. “Housing is the answer, and our city knows that, and almost every other city across the nation knows that.”

The death of 55-year-old houseless resident Deseire Quintero sparked the community’s initiative to reclaim Camp Phoenix. 

Quintero, the lead plaintiff in Quintero v. City of Santa Cruz this April, was killed by a falling tree in Pogonip on Oct. 27. Known as “Mama Desi” by her friends and family, Quintero’s public memorial was held on Nov. 5 in front of City Hall. 

With legal council from CHU, Quintero’s son, Marcos Quintero, plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Santa Cruz, City Manager Martin Bernal, Chief of Police Andrew Mills and Take Back Santa Cruz (TBSC). TBSC was one of the defendants in the Quintero case.  

“We, the officers and members of the Santa Cruz Homeless Union and the California Homeless Union Statewide Organizing Council, hold the City of Santa Cruz, its City Council majority and the offices of the City Manager and the Chief of Police fully responsible for the tragic death of Deseire Quintero,” said Food not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry in a CHU press release. 

Members of the California Homeless Union participating in Sunday’s meeting responded to questions from KION-TV. Photo by Josephine Joliff

During the federal court hearing for Quintero, Ross Camp residents argued the city would be liable for the increased harm caused to those evicted from the camp. The city stated they would provide motel vouchers to camp residents upon the camp’s closure. 

According to the CHU press release, Assistant City Manager Susie O’Hara refused Quintero’s request for a two-day motel voucher, at which point Quintero went to Pogonip.  

“My friend was camping in an unsafe location and was killed, so people are worried for their lives,” said Santa Cruz CHU President Alicia Kuhl. “It hits home when somebody that you have known for 10 years dies in their survival camp because that was the only place they had to sleep.” 

Santa Cruz houseless residents have been hard-pressed to find a secure community shelter for the approaching winter. The 1220 River St. encampment, a community shelter set up by the city, has failed to accommodate the thousands of houseless residents in Santa Cruz. Houseless residents have even fewer local options for refuge after the city’s recent closure of its indoor winter shelter. 

“Camp Phoenix is a symbol asserting houseless peoples’ rights, and will show that the city and county can’t get away without addressing the continued criminalization and harassment of people who are just trying to find a place to sleep,” said former houseless resident John Colby. “This camp is a first step along the path to take this problem seriously.”

Aside from its location, Camp Phoenix doesn’t resemble its predecessor, the Ross Camp.

Camp Phoenix is regulated by five fundamental rules — no violence, theft, alcohol, drugs or disruptive behavior, and a requirement for residents to help maintain the camp’s operation. Residents who don’t follow these rules will be asked to leave the shelter.

“[The houseless residents] have intentionally and very consciously focused on the issues that arose from the last iteration of the last community here,” said Santa Cruz City Council Member Drew Glover. “This camp that is forming right now is diametrically opposite of what it was before because people know it’s important and they want the camp to succeed.”

Enclosed by a steel fence, the camp is already bustling with residents who brought their tents, bicycles, wheelchairs and dogs. People entering Camp Phoenix are greeted with laminated fliers of the camp’s five basic rules and guidelines for coexisting with others in the camp. 

With their support, CHU hopes the new rules and guidelines will allow Camp Phoenix to serve as an example of a houseless shelter existing in harmony with the city. 

“People are afraid. There are all these labels and fear over what homeless people are all about,” said Santa Cruz CHU President Alicia Kuhl. “People think they’re all on drugs and all mentally ill, so it’s just NIMBY-ism and fear stopping the solution to houselessness from being implemented. We know what’s needed, it’s just getting the job done that seems to be the problem.”

Additional reporting by Jordan Hankston, Jamie Moddelmog and Haneen Zain.