Someone walks through the homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park in Santa Cruz on Dec. 18, 2020.
A person walks through the homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park in Santa Cruz on Dec. 18, 2020. The city issued has an executive order shutting down the 150-person camp by January.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Break up San Lorenzo homeless encampment? ‘We would have advised against this,’ county health officer writes

Santa Cruz city officials are going against advice from public health experts by closing portions of San Lorenzo Park to disperse a homeless encampment there, critics say.

And, in a new development Monday, Lookout obtained a copy of an electronic message which shows that County Health Officer Gail Newel and her staff weren’t consulted about the city’s decision, and “if we had been, we would have advised against this,” Newel wrote.

Newel couldn’t be reached for comment, and a county spokesperson declined to discuss the LinkedIn exchange between Newel and a concerned resident. But a city spokesperson confirmed that Santa Cruz officials didn’t talk to county health experts when crafting the executive order that requires people living in the park to leave by Jan. 6.

City Manager Martín Bernal has the authority as the city’s de facto emergency manager “to deem whether camping in the park poses a COVID-19 risk,” city communications manager Elizabeth Smith said, adding that the decision complies with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The city’s emergency executive order cites crime, trespassing, graffiti, social distancing issues and trash as reasons...

“There is no process to consult health officers on encampment” dispersions, Smith wrote in an email. “CDC guidelines do not prohibit [dispersion] of encampments but provide for best practices, including providing housing alternatives and establishing 12’x12’ spacing for individuals.”

Still, the CDC also strongly discourages the sweeping of homeless encampments during the pandemic, especially when there are no other shelter options available. “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread,” the agency’s guidelines say.

The recommendations do say campers should “set up tents or sleeping quarters with at least 12 feet by 12 feet of space” per person. But if that’s not possible, officials should nonetheless allow people to remain where they are “but help decompress the encampment by linking those at increased risk for severe illness to individual rooms or safe shelter.”

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Outreach workers visited the San Lorenzo encampment two to three times per week for months, “to get those who are willing into the shelter referral system and connected to support services,” according to Smith. That resulted in shelter for some of the “more vulnerable” people experiencing homelessness, she said, not specifying how many people ended up finding housing.

The city’s order cited overcrowding, fire safety issues, trash build-up, reported criminal activity and damage to the park as reasons for the sweep. But homeless advocates and community activists say the city’s reasoning is flawed and disregards the possible negative health impacts of moving hundreds of people out of the park, away from centralized services and potentially into other pockets around Santa Cruz.

A homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park in Santa Cruz on Dec. 18, 2020. The camp was home to 150 or more people.
A homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park in Santa Cruz on Dec. 18, 2020. The camp was home to 150 or more people, but must be cleared out by Jan. 6 under an executive order from City Manager Martín Bernal that cited unsafe conditions.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The order is the outgrowth of a large number of the people staying put in San Lorenzo Park after Santa Cruz County was ordered to move the managed camp in the Benchlands floodplain to the Armory at DeLaveaga Park in November.

But the camp at the Armory is now full, too, according to the county. So that means that in the rainy winter season at the end of a destabilizing year, there are no remaining shelter beds or spaces at county-run facilities for the estimated 150 people who will be displaced from San Lorenzo Park.

The city’s decision, which did not require city council approval because of the COVID-19 state of emergency, comes as the city, county and state face the worst surge of cases and deaths all year. As of Dec. 21, Santa Cruz County had 1,842 active coronavirus cases. At least 70 people in the county had died of the disease, and health officials have been sounding the alarm that overwhelmed ICUs are on the brink of having no place to treat severely ill patients.

Santa Cruz County also saw a record-breaking number of deaths of homeless people this year: 77. None of the deaths were directly attributed to COVID-19; advocates say the factors associated with living on the street contribute to a lifespan that is, on average, 23 years shorter than that of a housed person.

Homeless people are routinely shuffled around Santa Cruz, local ACLU Board Chair Peter Gelblum said. But the timing of the city’s decision — during the holidays — is “surprising,” especially since homeless people in other parts of the city had been told to relocate to San Lorenzo Park, “and now they’re throwing them out,” he said.

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Gelblum on Friday wrote city and county officials urging them to “use both common sense and decency and stop this grave mistake before it starts.”

Others, including Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry and Alicia Kuhl, president of the Santa Cruz chapter of the California Homeless Union, sent a cease-and-desist letter to the city threatening legal action if the city doesn’t undo the order.

To community organizer Kayla Kumar, the closure of San Lorenzo Park will only make Santa Cruz’s homelessness issues worse by leaving vulnerable people unsheltered in silos around the community. “All of the by-products of unmitigated houselessness that community members complain about will likely be exacerbated by this displacement,” said Kumar, who made an unsuccessful bid for city council in 2020.

According to the city, bathroom access and hygiene stations will remain until San Lorenzo Park is closed in early January. Certain parts of the park will stay open, including the lawn bowling green, playground and riverwalk, a city news release said.