Edward Lovell Jr. steps out of a small homeless encampment on Airport Boulevard in Watsonville on a hot day with his mutt Cotton Candy.
Lovell, 43, estimates he is one of about 20 people who stay in the unsanctioned encampment, which runs up against Corralitos Creek.
Last winter, Lovell says the rising creek forced him and other residents to flee to higher ground. Everything he owned was washed downstream.
Lovell and his fellow unsanctioned campers could see that again, as an El Niño weather pattern expected this winter could bring another series of heavy rains to the Central Coast.
Whether those rains will bring a repeat of last winter—when a series of punishing winter storms brought widespread flooding throughout the county—is still unknown, says National Weather Service forecaster Sarah McCorkle.
But Brent Adams, who operates the Warming Center in Santa Cruz, says that if this winter is anything like last year, we are unprepared—both in services and shelter space.
“Last year’s long-lasting torrential downpours challenged our ability to remain open nightly for the numbers in need,” Adams says.
Good Times spoke with local officials to see what the cities and county are doing ahead of winter to ensure the unhoused people are safe and the services experts say we need to prioritize to prepare for any storms that lie ahead.
Call For More Services—And Shelter
Motioning to a large pile of trash near the road leading from the encampment, Lovell says he wants help from the City of Watsonville to provide basic services—things like portable toilets or a dumpster for trash.
“We’ve been bagging up this garbage,” he says. “But we have nowhere to put it. If (the city) came by with a truck, we’d throw it all in there. This place would be immaculate.”
But such services are hard to come by for homeless people, whose day-to-day existence is made up of trying to protect their possessions and finding the bare necessities, Lovell says.
“If I had a place where I knew my stuff wasn’t going to get stolen or the city wasn’t going to come and take my shit, if I had a stable place, I’d be working,” he says. “I’d be doing something positive with my life.”
Adams is a proponent of a services-based approach to helping the unhoused. As someone who has been providing services for the unhoused for the past few decades, Adams echoes Lovell: if people had a place to store their things, could have access to the basics (hygiene products, essential clothes), they’d have more time to dedicate to bettering their situation.
Last year, Adams had to scale back those basic necessities in favor of keeping the Warming Center operating due to funding restrictions. He wants to see the county and city step in where his organization can’t—both with providing those essential goods and more emergency shelter space.
“Last year’s long-lasting torrential downpours, the need was too much for our organization,” Adams says. “We had to focus on distributing warm and wet weather gear to everyone with focused distributions in areas that were desperate trouble spots, such as the pogonip mudslide and flooding areas.”
Officials across the county say they are currently working to clear the waterways of people, focus on outreach programs to notify people of shelter services, contend with debris and establish an emergency alert system county-wide.
The county has a handful of emergency shelter options, including the Watsonville Veterans Hall and Salvation Army in Watsonville and Housing Matters in Santa Cruz.
In the unincorporated parts of the county, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Community Policing Team plans to monitor encampments and work with other agencies to clear debris and hazards, and offer shelter information and other resources to residents, says Sheriff’s spokeswoman Ashley Keehn.
For encampments near waterways, officials’ first concern is residents’ safety, Keehn says. But they must also contend with environmental factors such as excessive trash, human waste, drug paraphernalia and erosion, all of which pose hazards to public health safety and water quality.
The Sheriff’s department is monitoring several encampments along Corralitos Creek, and working with the City of Watsonville, County Board of Supervisors and public works to address them.
“The placement of these encampments is ever changing, but the Sheriff’s Office Community Policing Team is consistently monitoring the unincorporated area for encampments that pose a threat to our waterways,” Keehn says.
The county and other jurisdictions are also planning to create a common “activation protocol,” a system that facilitates jurisdictions collaborating during severe weather events and lays out steps during such an event.
Santa Cruz County Housing for Health Director Robert Ratner says that the county is working to create more real-time shelter availability information, Ratner says.
But even with the amount of emergency beds available, county officials every year face one grim reality.
“There are not enough shelter beds for all people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the county,” Ratner says.
What’s In Store for Santa Cruz
The acceleration of climate change and its increasingly severe consequences on the unhoused is just one issue that keeps Santa Cruz homeless response manager Larry Imwalle up at night.
“These events that we’re talking about, like with severe weather, there’s an imminent risk to people’s lives,” Imwalle says. “It’s really life-safety issues that come into play and wanting to make sure that we have solutions and support and infrastructure to help support people in those particularly acute times of need.”
To have solutions and infrastructure in place ahead of this winter, Imwalle says the city is learning from last year’s hard-earned lessons.
For example, the city is searching for a vendor to run an emergency shelter, one that could offer additional spots for people to sleep. Last year, when the January storms wreaked havoc across the county, the city scrambled to put together an overnight shelter at Depot Park. The Santa Cruz Free Guide ran the shelter, which provided a place for around 60 people to seek refuge from the elements, but could only offer a place to sleep for around 27.
The Depot Park shelter will reopen during cold nights, but Imwalle says the city is hoping to offer additional emergency shelter space that, with the Depot Park space, will accommodate 60 people overnight during extreme weather episodes. The goal is to get this emergency shelter up and running by November, ahead—hopefully—of the most severe rain episodes. The city has budgeted around $140,000 for this emergency service.
As of Friday, the city’s two shelters—1220 River Street and the Armory Overlook—might have one or two open spaces, according to Imwalle.
Ahead of the winter storms, the city is also reaching out to unhoused people to alert them of services. But the city only has two full-time caseworkers to do this type of outreach work, in a city that has an estimated 749 of unhoused people, according to the county’s most recent point in time count.
“Having a good shelter plan is critical, last year we went into the season without a concrete plan in place,” Imwalle says. “So we are in a much better position this year, because that is coming together before the winter season. But what’s really important is rather than just the emphasis on shelters, the more we can do to reduce homelessness on an ongoing basis, the fewer people are going to be exposed and vulnerable to severe weather.”