.Managing the Aftermath of the Benchlands Closure

As hundreds are forced out of the Santa Cruz homeless encampment, Gov. Newsom withholds homeless funding

Last Tuesday, the remaining 24 people who had called the Benchlands at San Lorenzo Park home for the past several months packed up their belongings and dispersed—some heading to local shelters, and others making their way to other parts of the city.

It’s been almost three years since a long series of city encampment closures resulted in the city-sanctioned camp of nearly 300 unhoused people along the banks of the San Lorenzo River that officials, homeless service providers and residents often described as dangerous and lawless. Two months ago, the city started closing down sections of the Benchlands, going zone by zone across seven designated sections. City Homelessness Response Manager Larry Imwalle says that only a third of the campers—81 of roughly 241—took the municipality up on its offer to move into city-run shelters. Those shelters, including the newly established location at the National Guard Armory in DeLaveaga Park, never reached capacity.

Imwalle says the focus will now be on staying in contact with those who declined shelter and connecting them with homeless resources—and making sure no other encampments spring up around the city. 

The city plans to do this by sending its three outreach workers to connect with the campers who have dispersed across the city. There are still about a dozen shelter spots open at the city’s shelter at the Armory, so Imwalle hopes some of the former Benchlands residents might still opt for shelter. Outreach staff will also hold office hours from 11am to 1pm on Tuesdays at the picnic tables behind the Santa Cruz County Government Center. 

“This will be the first time that our outreach team has been doing this work and there hasn’t been the Benchlands,” Imwalle says. “But the outreach team has always done outreach throughout the city, going throughout the city and engaging folks and building those relationships and trying to support the homeless getting connected to services.”

secure document shredding

People experiencing homelessness can elect to give personal information to the city and county, so that case managers can more easily reach them. Imwalle says around 170 campers from the Benchlands gave the city some sort of information that he says will make it easier to stay in touch.

Santa Cruz Free Guide Executive Director Evan Morrison says it’s unlikely that three workers will be able to stay in contact with homeless people who have now moved throughout the city. He says most case manager models advise a ratio of one outreach worker for every 20 unhoused persons. Also, because of the transient nature of homelessness and limited access to cell phones, once an encampment disperses, so does a home base to find and stay connected to people, he says.

“[Outreach workers will] be able to keep in touch with some homeless people, but to stay in touch for long enough—through everything that those folks go through—to make a difference, it’s not realistic,” says Morrison, whose organization teamed with the city to establish a “safe sleeping site” at DeLaveaga Park for those who are living out of their cars.

The completed clearout comes amidst Gov. Gavin Newsom’s surprise Nov. 3 announcement that the state will withhold homeless funding grants from cities and counties across the state until recipients come forward with more ambitious plans to reduce homelessness.

The plans cities and counties have currently put forward would collectively reduce statewide homelessness by 2% by 2024, a goal that Newsom says is “simply unacceptable.” At that rate, Newsom says, it would take decades to curb homeless. 

During the pandemic alone, the state’s homeless population grew by 22,500. In Santa Cruz County, according to a preliminary count done in August, data shows an estimated 2,299 people experienced homelessness, a 6% increase since 2019.

Mayors across the state are pushing back against this announcement, saying that addressing homelessness is dependent in part upon ongoing, steady state funding. Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin says that the county shares Newsom’s frustration, but also hinted at the need for steady streams of state funding for homeless solutions.

“The governor’s frustration around this issue is understandable, and it’s a frustration everyone in this field shares. If this is an opportunity to discuss establishing more substantial, ongoing sources of funding we welcome it,” Hoppin says. “The primary obstacle to both preventing and resolving homelessness is housing affordability. The solution to that problem is building more affordable housing, and local jurisdictions do not have the resources to meet the need in that area.”

According to Hoppin, the state gave $6.3 million in homeless grants to the county last year, money that went to Housing for Health Partnership (H4HP), the county’s local Continuum of Care. The program aims to reduce homelessness by just over 25% between January 2019 and January 2024. 

Morrison says he has mixed feelings on Newsom’s action, but ultimately he also wants more drastic results and more effective use of state homeless funds. 

“I don’t know that it’s really clear what money is being spent on,” Morrison says. “Ultimately, I actually do appreciate [Newsom is taking] this action. Programs are at stake. But also, our community has been at stake. This has been an ongoing issue for decades. Let’s take this opportunity to do something about it.” 

1 COMMENT

  1. I have some insight into housing the homeless as I do and have provided housing for them. I also house immigrants. These groups go hand in hand when it comes to housing. Uncontrolled immigration overruns any planning you have to provide sufficient housing for population growth. Landlords will always lean towards renters whom come with less personal baggage. Until we the people of this state agree to controlled immigration no amount of money is going to solve homelessness, it is just going to get worse.

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