The City of Santa Cruz is gearing up to disband the Benchlands encampment in San Lorenzo Park, which has drawn controversy and criticism from all corners as its homeless population swelled over the last two years. But even as officials move to relocate the people who reside there, some big questions remain about the city’s plan.
From homeless advocates to city officials to those who have lived in it, most agree that the encampment needs to be closed. But at the same time, some question whether the city has the infrastructure and services to support this closure, and if this move will truly help curb homelessness—or exacerbate an already volatile situation.
Perhaps the only thing generally agreed upon is that after the Benchlands encampment is closed, “people can expect homelessness to become a lot more visible,” says Santa Cruz Free Guide Executive Director Evan Morrison.
Morrison has worked in the homeless sector for the past five years. In his current role, he is helping the city set up a safe parking area for RVs. He says it’s likely that unhoused people will end up in neighborhoods, downtown and on benches—anywhere they can find a place to sleep. It’s not ideal for them or other city residents, he says.
“If we’re dispersing a giant encampment, you’re more likely to see someone who’s homeless while you’re dropping your kid off at school,” says Morrison. “Where can our homeless residents go, and be safe? We’ve never truly answered that question.”
Moving the Benchlands
Santa Cruz City Manager Matt Huffaker announced during a city council meeting in April that the closure of the Benchlands encampment would begin in earnest in July. But the city’s new chief executive backtracked on those plans at a subsequent city council meeting, saying that the closure would happen in “late summer.”
The city is still a few weeks out from starting to move people out of the Benchlands, as it waits to finalize a contract with the Salvation Army that will provide 60 additional shelter spaces at the National Guard Armory. The Armory will also be home to a city-funded 24-hour safe parking program for people who live in their cars.
Currently, the city has an outdoor camp at the Armory Overlook in DeLaveaga Park, where 65 to 75 tents are set up, and another outdoor program with 30 spaces at 1220 River St.
The plan, says Santa Cruz Deputy City Manager Lisa Murphy, is to slowly clear out sections of the Benchlands, ensuring that as they move through the encampment, there will be shelter spaces available for those being moved. As for how long the process will take, there is no official time frame, says Santa Cruz spokeswoman Elizabeth Smith. The move will be put on pause as shelter spaces fill up, or as the city tries to get new programs online, Smith says.
She adds that the city will use a van to transport those interested into shelters,, and everyone will have the opportunity to meet with a case manager who can connect them with the right services.
“The city has not stood up proactive services in this way, in its history,” says Smith. “And so, just in its very nature, the closure is different. Our approach to contingency of the offer of shelter and the focus on case management, it’s different.”
Brent Adams, who operates the Santa Cruz Warming Center, and other homeless advocates, are skeptical that people will take up the offer to go to shelters. This is despite the fact that the shelter at the Armory is low-barrier, meaning it’s open to any gender, people can bring one pet and there will be an option for people to bring their things (as long as the personal items can be stored inside their tent).
Adams believes this will likely be another in a long line of failed encampment closures.
Before the Benchlands, there was the Ross Camp, which began accumulating dozens of tents, clustered between Highway 1 and the Ross discount store on the outskirts of downtown Santa Cruz, in 2018. The city tried and failed to close that encampment for months, and in April 2019, city officials reopened the Benchlands camp in an attempt to direct people away from Ross Camp. Even after the city closed the Ross encampment in May 2019, it reopened as a smaller camp in November. The city once again removed the campers, suggesting the people there move to the shelter options at the Armory.
“The city’s closing it because this is the long slow train that they’ve been doing,” says Adams. “This is the end of a long story—and this is the most ridiculous ending that anybody could have ever imagined.”
Smith says the city knows closing the Benchlands will not “magically cure homelessness.” Homelessness is a systemic issue that needs state and federal intervention, experts say.
But after disbanding the encampment, she says the city will be enforcing its overnight sleeping ordinance to help manage the impacts of closing the encampment. The ordinance, a controversial rule approved by city council in 2021 that allows Santa Cruz to restrict people from sleeping on public property after establishing 150 safe-sleeping sites, will be used on a case-by-case basis, enforced and determined by police.
“There’s no illusion that by creating shelter at the Armory, encampments are magically going to not occur anymore,” says Smith. “These are all tools in this toolbox to help people get housed, people get shelter and to manage the negative impacts that come from encampments, but there’s not one solution that’s going to make encampments go away.”
Where to Go?
Lemon, a woman in her early 30s who asked to have her last name withheld, was hesitant to go to a shelter when she was previously homeless. She says she was concerned for her safety and afraid of having her personal belongings stolen, and was also just embarrassed to go to a shelter. When she decided to seek out a place at a shelter, she says she was grateful to have a roof over her head, but her experience wasn’t all good.
Lemon lived in an individual room that she described as a large metal container shed without ventilation. In the summer, temperatures inside her room would become unbearably hot, so she would spend all day outside, while nights were ice cold.
“It’s pretty miserable in the summer,” Lemon says. “And despite it being a blessing to have it all, it’s still not fit for human habitation … especially [for] people with disabilities.”
While some people working at the shelter were sympathetic to Lemon’s situation, some treated her poorly, she says.
“It seems like [some of] the people who work there are very, very into the cause. And some of the people who work there almost have some sort of stigma or, like, hatred or prejudice against homeless people,” she says.
Asked what the plan is for those who decide to not move to the new shelter, the city asserts that that is an individual decision and “not something the city can comment on.”
In the weeks leading up to the clear-out, officials are working to count the people in the Benchlands, and will try to keep track of them so that case managers can connect them to services.
But officials acknowledge these plans might be temporary; the new shelter spaces and the staffing to move the encampment and provide services are being funded with a one-time, $14 million state infusion. With the failure of the sales tax measure in June, which would have provided $80 million in new funding for the city over the next decade, whether or not the city can see this plan through is still to be determined.
“The $14 million has already been programmed out to help with a variety of services that are not one-time services, like the shelters, that are ongoing operations,” Deputy City Manager Murphy says. “So without an ongoing stream of revenue to fund ongoing costs, we have a real problem.”
An ‘Inhumane’ Encampment
“The Wild West.” “A crime haven.” A “drug city.”
These are just a few phrases Adams uses to describe the Benchlands encampment. He provides shower services there once a week, and also walks through the Benchlands nearly every day on his way to work.
“These are spaces where people are allowed to be with no management whatsoever,” says Adams. “So it’s a scenario where the most aggressive people control the space. You can feel good vibes there from time to time. But it’s really focused on fentanyl, methamphetamine and opium, and access to that, so it’s quite desperate.”
In one week alone, Santa Cruz Police have responded to just over 40 calls related to incidents at the Benchlands. Twelve of those calls were related to assaults and overdoses.
“It’s inhumane conditions,” says Adams. He says the encampment needed to close months ago, and the city should have opened transitional shelters like the one on River Street years ago—and with more than 30 spaces.
“Living in the Benchlands is not appropriate for any human being,” says Adams.
When City Manager Huffaker announced that the city had postponed the closure of the Benchlands encampment at a city council meeting in June, he said that disbanding the camp hinges on the city having enough staffing and contract support, as well as police enforcement.
The announcement came around a week after six city vehicles were torched on June 2 at the municipality’s Parks and Recreation yard in Harvey West Park. Along with the fire, which city officials deemed suspicious, police also found spray-painted messages reading “Leave homeless alone” and “Stop sweeping.” These incidents are still under investigation, according to the Santa Cruz Police Department, but Huffaker said that afterward, city employees were concerned for their safety and expressed a desire for more police enforcement.
Security at the encampment has increased, with three officers every day patrolling San Lorenzo Park. Smith says police will be present during the move, and the city is working with the Sheriff’s Department to supplement security. But just how many officers will be available during the move is still unknown.
“We’re not to that level of detail on the plan,” says Smith.
In October of 2021, the county operated 638 shelter beds, in large part thanks to one-time pandemic funding; now, that number is down to 386.
Because of the limited capacity and the restrictions on shelters, homeless advocates say that even the opening of new, city-run shelters is not enough to keep people off the streets. They assert there needs to be a long-term, comprehensive plan that will prevent other unmanaged encampments from arising to fill the gap in services.
Those gaps can be exacerbated when encampments are closed—it becomes much harder for case managers to stay in contact with people they were helping to access services or find housing.
“Even if, or when, folks get settled again, it’s a crapshoot of whether or not service providers will be able to find them,” says Morrison. This is why it’s critical that the city identifies safe, overnight areas that homeless people can rely on for more than a year, he says.
Overall, Morrison says, the city and the community need to work together to help address homelessness if both want to keep people out of the streets and prevent another large-scale encampment. That means saying yes to affordable housing programs, it means education around temporary shelters in neighborhoods and providing services that aim to get people housed, in addition to offering people a safe place to sleep.
“What’s missing? An overall community plan to end homelessness, what the steps are,” says Morrison. “And then, we need to think, ‘Does closing this encampment fit into that plan or not?’”