*Pseudonym used to protect source’s privacy.
City clearing of the Harvey West “Agreement Camp,” a houseless encampment that had been nestled in the northwest corner of Harvey West Park since December 2020, began the morning of May 19, sending its about 30 residents and their belongings to the southern end of the San Lorenzo Benchlands.
One resident, who has been living in Santa Cruz for the past seven years, said the Agreement Camp had felt more stable, orderly, and like a home than any other place in town. Her tent, which she shared with her boyfriend, featured a tapestry curtain separating a small living area from a makeshift bedroom, elevated from the ground on wood palettes to prevent the entry of rain. All of their belongings were packed away by midday on May 19.
“Once you get enough under you, you start being almost stable,” said Sarah*, who asked to go by an alias. “We live a normal life here. […] People keep to themselves, and regulate each other when need be.”
Workers from the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation department loaded residents’ belongings onto two flatbed trucks, while ferrying individuals one by one to their new site at the Benchlands. Gauging from similar clearings in the past, city workers estimated that the moving process would last through much of the day.
About a month in the making, the move came as an attempt by city officials to reclaim Harvey West Park for use by the public at large. Brent Adams, the main force behind the Agreement Camp’s creation, said he and the residents of the camp negotiated with the city to determine the logistics of the move — including obtaining the help of the Parks and Recreation department, an anomaly among similar clearings and evictions like the recent clearing of Highways 1 and 9.
The new Benchlands site, which sits on a previously empty patch of land directly south of the pedestrian bridge spanning the San Lorenzo River, was specifically set aside by the city for incoming residents of the Harvey West encampment. North of the bridge is the greater part of the existing managed Benchlands encampment, now filled with over 150 residents.
Adams said he and the camp’s residents specifically requested a site separate from the larger Benchlands encampment. Adams, who is the head of the Santa Cruz Warming Center, explained that the Benchlands has a reputation for attracting more crime and drugs than their relatively peaceful community. The city plans to erect a fence between southern and northern Benchlands in an attempt to mitigate the flow of people and goods between the two.
The Warming Center established the Harvey West Agreement Camp as a refuge for people fleeing the “sweeps” — a moniker popular among the houseless for last year’s effort by the city to clear the encampments in upper San Lorenzo Park. It was an “agreement camp” insofar as its residents abided by a set of prescribed rules while living there, which included bans on theft, violence, open drug use, and trespassing, and requirements that residents keep their tents tidy and be good neighbors to non-camp residents.
Even with its closure, Adams sees the Agreement Camp as a success in the long term. The camp, he said, could be used as a proof of concept for a type of encampment without conflict with neighborhoods or constant calls for EMS services.
“We don’t get any sustaining city or county funding at all. It’s all the community support, and a few grants that we write,” Adams said. “So, we’re building community as we serve community, and just trying to instill these values.”
Adams’s Footbridge Services Center has taken a different approach to helping houseless people, providing readily available toiletries, storage, and electronics charging, while also offering laundry services and showers. Footbridge also runs the “Paradise Agreement Camp,” where residents sign on to a code of conduct, similar to the Harvey West camp’s.
Adams is hoping to host a community event in San Lorenzo Park, where members of the Harvey West Agreement Camp discuss the appeal of the agreement camp model, though, a date hasn’t been selected as of yet.
“How do we take better care of each other?” Adams said. “How do we protect each other? Part of that is [saying] ‘Around here, we don’t steal from each other.’ At night you can walk through these camps and take shoes. They’re all outside the tent. […] But when a camp decides that it’s protecting itself, now when people walk in everyone’s like, ‘Hey, who’s that, what are you doing here?’”