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Local and state government officials have just weeks to figure out where dozens of unsheltered people living in tents near Highways 1 and 9 will go because of a key road widening project that is set to begin in April.

Complicating matters is that the intersection, one of the busiest and most congested in Santa Cruz, is in and of itself an intersection of local, county and state government.

Although the crossroads is within the city limits, state highways and the right-of-ways beside them are state property, creating a litany of issues regarding the encampment, which has mushroomed since last year.

CalTrans, the state agency overseeing the intersection, has done little to maintain the right-of-way as the encampment has grown, Santa Cruz officials say. Trash has gotten out of control, they say, forcing the city to clean up the area frequently at an undisclosed cost to city taxpayers.

Beyond that, exactly which government agency should cover the cost of the camp relocation — and where campers should go, remain open questions.

Just about the only thing that is certain is that the widening project, which would add lanes of traffic in hopes of relieving congestion in the area, needs to start on time. The federal and state funding package being used to pay for the highway widening — part of the county’s larger longterm transportation plan — is set to expire six months after the grant was awarded in December.

Cars come within several feet of the homeless encampment at Highways 1 and 9.
Cars come within several feet of the homeless encampment at Highways 1 and 9. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz city officials have asked CalTrans to find a spot to relocate the campers — and has proposed at least two locations where they could go — but a site has not been selected.

“We have requested that CalTrans provide their own properties for relocation, and if they do not have or cannot provide their own properties, that they work with their partners at the state to identify locations, whether that’s state park lands or elsewhere,” Santa Cruz Planning Director Lee Butler told city council members on Tuesday. “From everyone’s perspective, our preference would be to have a specific location.”

Keeping people experiencing homelessness near service providers is important, so the new location should be in Santa Cruz County, city spokesperson Elizabeth Smith said. A CalTrans spokesperson said he did not have information Friday about the agency’s search process for a relocation site.

Who will pay for the relocation is another unresolved issue. Similar efforts have cost tens of thousands of dollars; abating a homeless camp that was once near the Santa Cruz ROSS store cost $265,000, according to Smith.

Given that the clock is ticking, both the city and CalTrans are tracking expenses related to the Highway 1 encampment, and will negotiate a cost-sharing agreement in the future, according to Butler.

Also, Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers will send a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom in coming days asking the governor to allocate more money for homeless issues in Santa Cruz, she said Tuesday. “We are, in my opinion, really caught in the middle in a bad situation,” Meyers said.

City officials might soon need to consider what to do with another large camp in downtown Santa Cruz, at San Lorenzo Park. When the city tried to “sweep” that camp late last year, officals were stopped by a court order that effectively said such a sweep posed a health risk during the pandemic. A federal judge will hear status updates on that order next month.

Although the city has an extremely high rate of homelessness, its total population is small compared to other California cities. As a result, Santa Cruz received a smaller share of COVID-19 relief funding from the state — money that could be used to address the homelessness crisis, city officials say.

In order to clear the Highway 1 camp, city and Santa Cruz County officials must follow COVID-19 guidelines issued by the state and federal government — and that means CalTrans must get approval from Newsom’s office before they can do so.

Santa Cruz officials are concerned about trash buildup in the homeless encampment around Highways 1 and 9.
Santa Cruz officials are concerned about trash buildup in the homeless encampment around Highways 1 and 9. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

The number of people staying at the camp has grown in recent months, according to Joey Crottogini, health center manager for the Homeless Persons Health Project.

When city officials cleared out a camp at the Pogonip, a wooded area threatened by the CZU Lightning Complex Fires last summer, the highway camp grew. A few months later, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency asked the county to shut down its managed encampment at the Benchlands near San Lorenzo Park, the highway camp grew again.

“The camp’s residents are dynamic so getting an accurate estimate on how many people are staying there is difficult, but it’s likely to be over 100 just based on the number of tents,” said Crottogini, who operates the county’s free clinic.

Across the county’s 16 homeless shelters, more than 80% of slots — 682 out of 836 — were occupied as of Tuesday.

County Supervisor Bruce McPherson, who has been involved with the relocation discussions, including a private meeting on Thursday morning, said no “definitive decisions” were made about the encampment. McPherson said he is hopeful that a resolution can be reached and said officials don’t want to lose any of the state funding for the long-planned project.

“It’s been 10 years in the making,” he said. “So to have this approved is critical.”

Follow Isabella Cueto on: Twitter. Isabella joins the Lookout team as a government accountability reporter, building on her experience covering local government for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.Before...

Follow Patrick Riley on: Twitter. Patrick Riley is Lookout Santa Cruz’s county government accountability reporter. He comes to Lookout from Florida, where he covered Collier County government for the...