Cleanup of San Lorenzo Park to begin Friday as homeless camp moves next door to Benchlands
City officials announced the plans during a Santa Cruz City Council meeting on Tuesday, and said they had already begun relocating dozens of San Lorenzo Park campers to the Benchlands. The move is the result of a compromise the city struck with the local homeless union after months of legal back-and-forth over a federal lawsuit focused on the threat of COVID-19 to unsheltered people staying in the park.
The upper part of San Lorenzo Park will close on Friday, as the city finishes clearing out a longstanding homeless encampment that will move a short distance away, closer to the San Lorenzo River.
City officials announced the plans during a Santa Cruz City Council meeting on Tuesday, and said they had already begun relocating dozens of San Lorenzo Park campers to the Benchlands near the river. The move is the result of a compromise the city struck with the local homeless union after months of legal back-and-forth over a federal lawsuit focused on the threat of COVID-19 to unsheltered people staying in the park.
It is unclear how long the cleanup will take and when the park will reopen.
In order to sweep the encampment, the city committed to setting up 122 campsites — spaced six feet apart — in the Benchlands, a floodplain along the San Lorenzo River that the city says is safe for camping since the rainy season has ended. Santa Cruz officials also said in court filings that the city would create a permit process for people experiencing homelessness to camp in the area. Federal magistrate Susan van Keulen approved the deal on March 30.
In January, van Keulen granted a temporary injunction in favor of the unhoused residents, preventing the city from clearing the encampment in a ruling that was “closely tied” to the state of the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against breaking up homeless encampments during the height of the pandemic.
However, van Keulen revisited the injunction in a March 17 hearing since COVID-19 case numbers have been dwindling in Santa Cruz County for weeks and COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, including for unhoused people. It was during that hearing that the city introduced a proposal to move the encampment to the Benchlands — a compromise that van Keulen directed the city and homeless union to explore.
Santa Cruz County government previously had managed a homeless encampment in the Benchlands until the Federal Emergency Management Agency in mid-November ordered the county to clear the area before the rainy season began. FEMA’s rationale was that the Benchlands area was flood-prone at that time and a move to another site would eliminate any potential safety concerns.
As a result, some of the people who stayed in the camp moved to another managed county encampment in DeLaveaga Park. But others refused to move to DeLaveaga, choosing to remain in San Lorenzo Park or going elsewhere. Now that rainy season has passed, there is no risk of flooding.
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In March, van Keulen largely adopted a code of conduct the city proposed for Benchlands campsite occupants. The rules were designed to address some nearby residents’ and the city’s public safety concerns, while still providing some of the benefits of an encampment to unsheltered people during the pandemic.
Among the city’s rules:
- Ban on drug and alcohol use.
- No smoking and campfires.
- No littering.
- No violence.
- Restrictions on what belongings unhoused people can have and where they can keep them in the camp.
- Mandated “quiet hours” between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.
The judge is considering a request from the homeless union’s attorney, Anthony Prince, that the city establish a designated smoking area near the Benchlands since some of the campers are smokers. Smoking is prohibited at all city parks and beaches.
Attorneys from both sides were instructed to come to an agreement on how to resolve the lawsuit and will appear in court again on May 13.