.A Long Way from Opportunity

coverwebnewsSanta Cruz activists pushing for a sanctuary camp for the homeless have a model in Eugene’s Opportunity Village—but can they find the same success?

In the industrial part of Eugene, Ore., where the railroad tracks run and the ground is mostly dirt and gravel, there’s a little village. Dotting the one-acre lot are about 25 wood shelters, most measuring eight feet by eight feet, without electricity or heating.  There are two toilets and one shower for everyone to share, and a sink to wash dishes in. It doesn’t look like much. But almost everyone in town will tell you that this little village is one of the city’s greatest accomplishments.

Eugene’s Opportunity Village has been arguably the most successful—and least controversial—response to homelessness in an American city in recent memory. Spearheaded by a 26-year-old Ohioan named Andrew Heben, who moved here after doing his senior thesis from the University of Cincinnati in “Tent City Urbanism,” the proposal for Opportunity Village received unanimous support from Eugene’s city council. The planning department official who approved the permit for their site said it was the first time a hearing on a new site permit faced zero opposition from the community. “Everyone was fine with this,” says Eugene city councilwoman Claire Syrett, whose district includes Opportunity Village.

I visited Opportunity Village because, for about a year, I—along with every other reporter in this town—have been getting regular press releases from local activists trying to set up what they are calling a “homeless sanctuary camp” in Santa Cruz, citing Opportunity Village as one of their inspirations. But the majority of local politicians and community members here don’t seem to take them seriously or support their idea—the very idea that, just 10 hours north up I-5, is being celebrated. I wanted to figure out why that was.

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Tale of Two Cities

Both Eugene and Santa Cruz are medium-sized West Coast cities with histories of progressive politics. Eugene’s overall population is moderately bigger, with a total of about 100,000 more citizens than Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz county’s latest homeless census reported approximately 3,500 homeless individuals. Lane County, which includes Eugene, documented nearly 10,000 homeless individuals who sought social services at some point throughout the course of 2013. According to Lane County Human Services Supervisor Pearl Wolfe, at any given time the number of homeless individuals in Lane County falls somewhere between that figure and 1,750—which is the most recent number documented in a one-night homeless count the county conducts annually.

Opportunity Village was a direct outgrowth of the Occupy Eugene movement. Both Eugene and Santa Cruz had active Occupy encampments that drew a lot of homeless individuals and raised awareness about the issue of homelessness in the larger community. Both camps were eventually shut down by the city for safety and cleanliness reasons. But that seems to be about where the similarities end.

“When we had to close the camp, I made a promise that we would immediately work to tackle some of the issues people were dealing with,” says Kitty Piercy, who has been mayor of Eugene since 2005. She put together a homelessness task force to come up with recommendations, one of which was a village-style homeless community.

Andrew Heben moved to Eugene right around the time the Occupy camp was being closed and the mayor’s homelessness task force was set up. “The power of the self-organized camp that people experienced at Occupy really drove the ideas that were discussed in that task force,” he remembers. “Their number-one recommendation was a safe and secure place to be 24/7.”

A lanky young man with blonde hair and a calm, pragmatic demeanor, Heben joined up with some other local activists following the task force to, as he puts it, “pester the city into actually following through with what they set out to do.

“We came up with a concept plan and a design, and met with a bunch of people in the city to try to get them to support it,” he says. They then formed an official nonprofit and secured business, religious, and other nonprofit leaders to serve on their board of directors. The city donated an acre of land to the project for the trial duration of one year, but that’s been the extent of their involvement. The rest of the money for the village, which Heben thinks totaled about $100,000 cash and another $100,000 in donated materials, came from private individuals and businesses.

It took just under three years of planning, organizing and building for Occupy Village to officially open this past August. In Santa Cruz, local activists Brent Adams and Stacey Falls have been working on the idea for a sanctuary camp for almost a year. For a number of different reasons, it is still unclear whether they will succeed.

Welcome to the Jungle House

In Brent Adams’ office for the sanctuary camp initiative—a room in what’s known as the Jungle House, a former UCSC student party house, which the homeowner lets him use rent-free—he has tacked to the wall a flier advertising a “super massive slumber party.” Initially planned for April, the event was intended to be a community campout to raise awareness about the sanctuary camp concept.

Adams recently received a letter from the city denying permission for the event. The main reason cited was that, while his estimated attendance was 150, Adams had no plans to register participants or in any way limit the number of attendees. “The city finds a misleading disparity between our estimated attendance and our promotional stuff that says ‘super massive slumber party,’ Adams says, looking at the four-page rejection letter.

The letter also cites Adams’ ties to the now-infamous Occupy Santa Cruz 3-day takeover of a vacant bank building as a reason for denying permission for the camp-out.

When I ask him if he thinks his involvement in the bank takeover has anything to do with the city’s resistance to get on board with the sanctuary camp proposal, he admits that it could. “I regret not staying with the Occupy camp of homeless people. Occupy Eugene turned that whole thing into a machine to help homeless people. We just didn’t—we abandoned the camp to do this bank thing,” he says. He is still facing charges for the incident, and says he has been to court more than 40 times since it happened.

Adams raised some funds at a gala dinner a couple months ago—not for the sanctuary camp itself, but to fund the camp-out, which was intended to promote the sanctuary camp idea. He says that now, in light of the city’s refusal to grant him permission for the camp-out, his plan is to “stop all this fun and games and really just only work on establishing the camp now.”

In the last year, Adams and his partner on the project, Santa Cruz High School teacher Stacey Falls, have held regular informational meetings on the project. All the meetings have been open to the public. They’ve gathered 1,000 signatures on a MoveOn.com petition, raised some money, and met with community leaders. Like Heben in Eugene, they would like to become an official nonprofit and say the paperwork for that is nearly complete.

However, they admittedly aren’t as far along as they could be. Adams says he was engaged for two months solid on a warming center program—a response to the week-long cold snap Santa Cruz experienced this winter. “It’s a side project of sanctuary camp,” he explains. He has a handful of other projects, too, including plans to help members of the Salinas homeless camp pack up belongings in anticipation of a move. The week after our conversation, he sent me a press release announcing that a documentary he made about sanctuary camps would be showing at the “Reel Work” labor film festival.

“I keep hearing people say, ‘It’s a good idea but he’ll never do it. Brent Adams will never do it,’” he says.

Why is that? “Because of things that they think about Brent Adams,” he responds. “They’ve never even met me.”

Matter of Perception

Adams admits he has to fight his public perception. Santa Cruz councilwoman Pamela Comstock outright refused to meet with him to discuss the sanctuary camp idea, citing as her reason a public Facebook comment he once made, which read, “We need to slash and burn this heartless fear mongering city council.”

Comstock claims the language of his Facebook post made her fear for her life. “In the interest of self preservation I will not meet with him,” she wrote in response. 

When I asked Adams about this correspondence, he sent me an email titled, “My Communication Style.” It read, “It should be noted that for the next chapters of Sanctuary Camp and my interactions with local elected officials, I’ll be demonstrating more tact and better communication skills.”  

Admits Falls, Adams’ partner on the project, “Brent is pretty dynamic and also kind of confusing, and people’s response to him is also pretty dynamic and kind of confusing. In some ways that’s been a barrier.”

I caught up with Comstock on a recent afternoon during her lunch break at Whole Foods. She was eager to hear about the tiny home-style community I visited in Eugene, but rolled her eyes when I brought up Adams and his proposal, saying she has concerns about the professionalism of both. “Where’s the support? One guy? One guy showing up to council with a half-baked business plan?” she asked.

Comstock says she would be open to hearing about new, creative solutions to homelessness, but asserts that Adams’ proposal is neither of those things. “It doesn’t offer anything new in the way of solutions. It’s just repeating a past failure,” she says, referencing Camp Paradise, a homeless tent camp set up along the San Lorenzo River circa 2001.

Despite her dismissal of the sanctuary camp proposal, Comstock insists she is interested in finding solutions to the housing affordability issues in Santa Cruz. But, she says, she doesn’t want those solutions to be an eyesore. “I think our future is in minimalism. It seems like a really organized tiny home community could work,” Comstock says. “But again, very organized. Very well run. Nicely designed. No blight. People don’t want to feel like there’s a shantytown in their community. That’s my sense.”

Interestingly enough, Adams has this same sense. But to him, the benefits of giving homeless people a safe space in which to sleep outweigh the costs of a so-called “blight.”

“We know that [Santa Cruz] doesn’t like the idea of a tent city, but if it’s going to reduce some of the impacts we’re seeing …” He trails off, lost in thought about the painfulness of the issue. “The costs of homelessness are profound,” he says.

Property Value

In Santa Cruz, Adams and Falls are proposing a restricted-access, clean and sober tent encampment that would be very easy to move. They initially wanted to have it within city limits, but are currently thinking a church property just outside of town is the best bet, though they don’t yet have a specific location in mind.

“We looked at Google maps and found all these—all we need is a half acre. Then we had meetings and—all this takes so much time. Who owns what property? Are they approachable? So in the last few months we’ve been meeting with representatives of several different churches; I can’t tell you which ones. We’re still in talks,” he says.

Reflecting on the project’s progress so far, Adams says, “I didn’t know what to ask for. What we wanted was simply to have a conversation, just share our vision.”

It’s a noble cause, to be sure, but city officials say they need a better reason than that.

Don Lane, one of the most progressive members of Santa Cruz city council, met with Adams to talk about the proposal at one point but says he has mixed feelings about it. “I appreciate and applaud Brent for trying to take some of these issues on, because they’re issues I care a lot about, too,” he says. “But it seems like it just continues to be too much of an abstraction to just say, ‘We need to have this,’ without a place that is part of the proposal. I haven’t heard what the concrete place is yet.”

Lane believes there are a number of details that need to be worked out before he can throw his support behind the plan. “I think their initial drive is to get people to sign on and say, ‘Yes this is something I support. For a community member that’s fine, but if I’m going to support it as a public official it’s not just conceptual support,” he says. “It becomes a pretty tangible thing. What’s the specific proposal? What are you asking me to support? What does my support mean? I’m not prepared to say, ‘Oh yeah, I love this idea, go for it.’”

Building Consensus

So what does it take to create a homeless village that isn’t controversial? Mark Lakeman, a national leader in the development of sustainable public spaces, says that for a homeless village to succeed, it needs to demonstrably meet the needs of the larger community. Lakeman gave a talk at TEDx Santa Cruz this year about his experience creating public gathering spaces in his hometown of Portland, Ore. He also worked on the development of Portland’s Dignity Village—a sort of big sister of Opportunity Village, organized much the same way.

“In both Portland and Eugene the villages are first and foremost examples of sustainability, design culture, and they’re shrewd ideas,” he says. For better or worse, this made them much more palatable to the city’s residents, who were more eager to sign-on to support a community focused on sustainability and design than one billed as primarily a response to homelessness.

In Eugene, Heben says there has been a contingent of people hoping to organize a tiny home community for some time. Opportunity Village meets that goal. “It’s kind of through the back door of homelessness that we’ve been able to realize this idea that people have been trying to realize for a long time,” he says.

In Santa Cruz, the community’s principal goals include sustainable living, affordability, water conservation, and public safety. It’s entirely possible that a sanctuary camp could provide solutions to these issues. In Eugene, city councilmember Syrett says the residents of Opportunity Village have worked to make their neighborhood—which she describes as low-income and traditionally underserved—safer.

“In addition to just getting some attention around being generous and welcoming, they’ve asked the city for lighting for safety, some infrastructure at the park, and increased police patrols. They’ve been able to make their voices heard,” she says. “Opportunity Village has a structure; they’re a nonprofit; they’re thinking about how they intersect with the surrounding community, and I think that can only be positive.”

For now, Adams and Falls are proposing tents instead of a micro-home community because of the community reaction they have been getting to their idea. “We’re dealing with people in neighborhoods who hesitate at the idea of permanent little structures where low income and possibly homeless people are going be hanging out,” says Falls. They have concerns about property value concerns, she says, and safety—though she thinks those are unwarranted.

“I understand why people don’t necessarily want to be neighbors with a homeless camp, but I think a lot of that is based on poor stereotypes. If they took the time to get to know homeless people a little better, I think some of those concerns would go away,” she says.

Trying to Understand

Sitting at the library in downtown Eugene, I told Syrett I was struck by the willingness of the Eugene city council to, as I put it, “just try stuff.” In addition to Opportunity Village, Eugene has a newly expanded car camping program and a number of “rest stops”—designated areas where homeless individuals can sleep for a few hours while someone watches their belongings.

Syrett said that at a council meeting shortly after Occupy, a fellow councilmember shared a personal experience he had with homelessness.

“He could understand how someone could end up on the street,” she says. This led Syrett to go public with her own story about a family member who has been at risk of homelessness for years. Those stories, she believes, inspired the other councilmembers to want to take immediate action to ease the suffering of homeless people in their community. 

When I asked Comstock about any personal understanding of homelessness, I got a very different response. “I haven’t had a lot of conversations with homeless people,” she says. “I don’t know where a lot of them come from.”

Comstock’s understanding of short-term options for where people can sleep is also skewed. She stated that, “car camping’s not illegal in Santa Cruz.” But it is.

Both Comstock and Councilman Lane have signed on to give their full support to the “smart solutions to homelessness” initiative, which the Homeless Services Center has been spearheading for the last three years. It includes a number of “permanent supportive housing” programs, such as the 180/180 program, geared toward giving homeless individuals permanent housing with access to support services. It is in line with the Obama administration’s strategic plan to end homelessness, and it is what draws federal dollars these days.

Claudia Brown, president of the Homeless Services Center board, says the HSC has a neutral position on the proposed Sanctuary Camp. “We’re not taking a position per se on the sanctuary camp because our mission is solely focused on permanent housing. Everything we do and every dollar we spend is focused on getting people into permanent housing. We are not going to participate in a sanctuary camp. We’re not going to be a supporter of a sanctuary camp,” Brown says.

Falls believes that, while great work is indeed being done with the permanent supportive housing model, it’s a “no-brainer” that more immediate support is needed. “Right now there are over 3,000 people who are homeless in Santa Cruz County. There are shelter beds in the city for 200-300 people. There’s all this conversation about cleaning up the camps and getting people out of the bushes and out of doorways, and I just don’t know where we think those folks are going to go.”

Getting Directions

Heben says at the start, a lot of people said the idea for Opportunity Village sounded too idealistic. They thought there was no way it would work out. But after a couple of years of community meetings and steady planning, plus the support of some well-respected community members and local media, the doubters eventually dropped away.

Syrett says Opportunity Village has not been controversial since it opened in August. “It’s the other, more-ad hoc pieces that sometimes cause challenges,” she says. For example, some of the “rest stop” locations have worked better than others. “The majority of city council believes we need to help. But how can we be smart while we do that? That’s the harder question,” she says.

Despite some differences, the Santa Cruz community seems to have the same goal—wanting to help, but wanting to be smart about it at the same time.

Adams and Falls maintain that, with enough support, their Sanctuary Camp could eventually turn into something as successful as Opportunity Village.

“At this point we’re talking about an itinerant tent camp model because if it doesn’t work out we can move it and find something that’s maybe more palatable to people,” says Falls. “If you look at the history of some of the various camps around the country, a lot of them start out as a tent city, then once they become established and get some funds they do move into the little modular homes and the really sweet, cute villages. “We’re open to working with the community to find what they would find most satisfying.”

One possible collaborator of Sanctuary Camp is Ron Swenson. He is the owner and founder of Swenson Solar, the company responsible for developing the solar-power units at Santa Cruz city hall as well as the police department. Swenson has 10 acres of property next to the Homeless Garden Project on Santa Cruz’s Westside, which he is planning on developing into what he calls an “eco-village.”

Swenson has met with Brent to discuss his proposal, but is unsure whether his neighbors would support a tent-style community. His vision includes tiny homes using eco-friendly building materials, solar energy, electric vehicle charging stations, composting toilets, and graywater use. “I have a very keen interest in getting something built that will showcase simple living,” says Swenson. He sees his project as an affordable living alternative for people who either don’t have the means to live in a traditional development, or who simply don’t want to—the latter perspective, it must be noted, isn’t taken into account with the permanent supportive housing model, which places people in existing developments.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the climate has changed. Isn’t it about time that we really do something drastic?” wonders Swenson. “The basic concept is that you shouldn’t need to have a McMansion to be allowed to live in our community. Where is the line drawn between living under a bridge and living in a McMansion? If we would draw the line a little lower, I think it would be a safer community.”

Whether Swenson’s eco-village will join forces with the Sanctuary Camp proposal is undetermined—at this point, a lot about the Sanctuary Camp proposal is undetermined. Whatever happens, it’s clear that the community’s support or lack of support has the potential to make or break the project.

The same has been true in Eugene. “Creating Opportunity Village took thousands of hours of volunteer labor and donated materials,” recalls Heben. “It’s a true testament of what the community can do on its own.”


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