This is part five of a series on the health impacts of homelessness. Part six runs Nov. 4. —Editor
At 27 years old and homeless for the third time, Mark Matthews was spending his nights in a parking lot on the corner of Laurel and Front streets until Santa Cruz police and city workers broke down the encampment at the beginning of October.
Downtown outreach workers handed out phone numbers about shelter options, but when he tried calling those numbers, Matthews learned that there weren’t enough beds for everyone who had been staying at the camp, he says. So Matthews moved his tent up to the San Lorenzo River levee just around the corner from the parking area, known as Lot 27. He fully expects Santa Cruz officials to move him and his friends again soon. He just doesn’t know when.
“It’s almost like they forgot about us again,” says Matthews, who lost his job in March, just before Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns began their economic damage.
Matthews says that between the pandemic and the chaos created by recent fires, his current bout of homelessness has been his toughest yet.
Last month, an executive order from City Manager Martín Bernal announced the Lot 27 sweep, citing social distancing problems, “nuisance” conditions and food handling violations by the volunteer group Food Not Bombs, which was serving hot meals. Food Not Bombs has since set up across the street, in Lot 23. The city has since granted Food Not Bombs a permit to stay through at least the end of October.
Meanwhile, a few tents remain on the levee paths, known as the San Lorenzo Riverwalk. They aren’t without impacts, says Greg Pepping, the executive director of the Coastal Watershed Council.
Pepping explains that it creates a dirtier river when such camps go unmanaged, meaning that they don’t have bathrooms, places to wash up or trash pickup. He also says that when campers block the path, it deters others from enjoying the beauty of the river.
“It’s a public path. And we don’t have a solution for homelessness,” he says. “I hope we can keep a bike and pedestrian path open for everybody, not for a few people.”
ROAM AT LAST
Santa Cruz City Manager Martín Bernal says that, given the large unsheltered population, police officers and parks officials often end up moving homeless people and their impacts from one part of town to another.
“What we end up doing is herding people from one place to another—which is not a solution,” Bernal tells me as he stands outside the new managed homeless camp at San Lorenzo Park, just after wrapping up a tour of local parks with other local government officials.
That approach creates an ever-shifting calculus: If law enforcement breaks up one encampment, will the aftermath just create a bigger headache somewhere else?
Recent fire evacuations have already pushed many homeless residents out of the Santa Cruz Mountains and into the city of Santa Cruz. Additionally, it’s unclear how the destruction of 900 homes in a county already dealing with a housing crisis will affect homelessness. Not only that, but the threat posed by fire risk prompted the city to push homeless residents out of the meadow-laden Pogonip greenspace, Bernal says.
Although it’s surrounded by unsanctioned camps, the San Lorenzo Park Benchlands’ newly managed encampment—overseen jointly by the city and Santa Cruz County—is, by all accounts, going well. As the Oct. 9 tour wraps up, a man walking his bike stops by to thank everyone who made the camp a reality. “This camp is helping me out a lot. I’m 62, true-born American. I just want to get off the street,” he says.
But the current setup won’t last forever. Honestly, it may not last much longer.
The county is spending temporary coronavirus relief money on the camp. Also, the camp will have to move elsewhere once the rain starts, as it is in a floodplain.
In her closing remarks as the tour wraps up, Santa Cruz City Vice Mayor Donna Meyers pleads with government leaders to step up and bring in more resources.
She points her remarks mostly toward state Assemblymember Mark Stone and congressman Jimmy Panetta, who are both in attendance. But her overall message is clear—that Santa Cruz is doing its fair share of helping and managing the homeless, and then some.
Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, a former Santa Cruz mayor, speaks next, and he stresses that the county is also already doing a lot, having doubled the number of shelter beds locally in the past six months.
The past few recent years have been marked by city and county officials trading barbs as they try to shift responsibility for homeless issues to one another, but that’s not happening now, they say. As staffers and elected officials trickle out of the park following the tour, I awkwardly insert myself into Meyers and Coonerty’s conversation. They both tell me that the keys going forward will be a different approach to problem-solving and an even higher level of collaboration between the city and the county.
Both Meyers and City Manager Bernal stress that many homeless services are currently centered in the city of Santa Cruz, and they feel that creates challenges. The city, however, could be getting more services before long, per the recommendations laid out by the Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness, which suggested there be a new homeless navigation center in Santa Cruz’s Harvey West neighborhood.
Bernal says he supports that approach. But he also thinks there should be additional navigation centers in Mid-County and in South County, something he thinks he remembers reading in a recent Santa Cruz County plan.
Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin tells me the county’s plan actually calls for just two navigation centers, one in the northern end of the county and the other at the county’s southern end.
Phil Kramer, executive director of the Housing Matters shelter and services campus, says what’s clear is that people who live outside are struggling.
In a statement to GT, Kramer explains that he sometimes wonders if a lack of community or political will is limiting the rollout of further services. In any case, he says it’s time for everyone to step up and pitch in.
“All I know is that we have hundreds of people sleeping outside right now all over town and winter is coming and everyone needs to step up and do more. Every agency, every community member, everyone,” he states. “The status quo is so harmful to both the people sleeping outside and to the community dealing with the impacts of so many people sleeping rough all around the community. Write to elected officials and tell them that you don’t want unmanaged camping scattered all over the place. Tell them you want people sleeping outside to have a safe, healthy, managed place to go—and that you want the safe, managed sites to be in thoughtfully-selected sites that will work for the housed and unsheltered residents in our community. And then, when a site is proposed in your neighborhood, say, ‘Let’s manage it well and make it work.’”
Additional reporting by Mat Weir.