The Benchlands houseless camp is set to close Nov. 15 due to its location on a floodplain. City officials currently do not have an alternative location to shelter approximately 70 residents.

Outside the chain-link fence at the Benchlands camp is an eight-square-foot plot of dirt, budding with squash, zucchini, tomatoes, and an assortment of herbs and succulents. Blue, a camp resident named for the color of their hair, is the fierce guardian of this plot. The arid ground sprouts life, thanks to an elaborate irrigation system of coconut water bottles nestled in the dirt among the plants — bottles Blue admitted to hoarding for this sole purpose.

“They let me do this because it calms me down, I have mood swings from hell,” Blue said with a laugh. 

Living alongside Blue are about 70 other Benchlands residents, according to the camp’s assistant director Jeremy Leonard, who has been working there since it opened in late July. The encampment provides donated daily meals and hygiene items to its residents.

“We’re pretty happy here,” said Benchlands resident Greg Bentson. “We don’t have to scrounge for food, food’s brought here. Basically we get the elements of survival that let us be stable enough to figure out what the heck’s going on, and to decompress, and then to be able to make more advanced decisions.”

Photo by Ellie Prickett-Morgan

Bentson referenced residents who have been given employment opportunities, or pathways to secure apartments. One resident said that with the help of encampment case workers, they were able to visit a dentist for the first time in 30 years.

“Neighbors take care of neighbors pretty well here. I worry about everybody, and I’ll miss a lot of people if we don’t have a place to go.”

Greg Bentson, Benchlands resident

Leonard stresses that a big component of this progress is the structure and safety provided by the camp, particularly for women and the elderly. 

“We don’t allow any violence, thieving, anything like that. So, for the most vulnerable people inside of our camp, there’s an element of security. Their items aren’t getting stolen all the time out on the street,” Leonard said.

However, this safety and stability is only temporary. The Benchlands are located on the San Lorenzo River floodplain, so the encampment cannot safely operate in the rainier months. 

“That Benchlands area is where the river floods to when the river rises beyond the edge of the levee,” said Elizabeth Smith, a representative from the City Manager’s Office.

Smith explained that the county has been receiving funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the camp due to COVID, but that funding would be removed if it continued to exist in an active floodplain. 

Initially set to close on Oct. 31, city and county officials extended the date to Nov. 15 in a joint city and county decision as they look for a new location. The challenge, Smith said, is finding a location large enough to house the current residents, while also maintaining access to resources. 

At time of press, no new location for the encampment has been confirmed. 

Neither camp residents nor camp employees know what closing day will actually look like. Leonard made his desire to ensure residents’ safety clear, but most Benchlands residents are facing uncertainty in where to go next. 

Some Benchlands residents have been through multiple cycles of temporary camps, and are already taking precautions by shedding nonessential belongings. Bentson, who was at the Ross camp in 2019, expressed worry about the dissolution of  social networks formed at the current camp. 

“Neighbors take care of neighbors pretty well here,” Bentson said. “I worry about everybody, and I’ll miss a lot of people if we don’t have a place to go.”

Bentson and other residents desire a long-term camp setup, to ensure stability and resources reach houseless folks. 

“It’s difficult logistically, because you have all your stuff that you’ve gathered and […] now suddenly, it’s like, how do all of us disperse, and emotionally, because your social structure is torn apart,” said Bentson on his expectations for the move. “When am I gonna see these people again?”

UPDATE: Since the article was written, DeLaveaga Park has been chosen as the alternative location for the Benchlands houseless camp. The new location will have a capacity of 61 tents.