Tents at a homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park on Feb. 9, 2021.
Tents at the homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Could San Lorenzo Park homeless encampment move back to the Benchlands? Judge set to decide soon

In a new proposal submitted to a federal judge Wednesday, the city of Santa Cruz suggested moving the residents of the San Lorenzo Park homeless encampment to the Benchlands, another section of the park, with room for more than 100 tents and rules in place for residents.

The homeless encampment in Santa Cruz’s San Lorenzo Park can stay put for the time being, but it could be moved soon, per a proposal the city presented to federal Judge Susan van Keulen on Wednesday morning. The matter will head to court again at the end of the month, when a decision could be made.

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. Wednesday, the court heard arguments on whether the injunction should be extended or dissolved as virus case trends improve.

The city, represented by attorneys Cassie Bronson and Tony Condotti, asked for the injunction to come to an end. Homeless residents, represented by Anthony Prince, requested the injunction be extended until at least May 8, when the city’s latest state of emergency lapses.

The judge focused on a proposal set forth by the city in court filings, a plan she said she was “intrigued” by.

Although the city asked for the injunction to be dissolved, it also pitched moving the camp to the Benchlands, a grassy floodplain within San Lorenzo Park that is next to the San Lorenzo River. Santa Cruz County previously 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 county-supervised Benchlands camp moved to another managed encampment in DeLaveaga Park. But others refused to move to DeLaveaga, choosing to remain in San Lorenzo Park or going elsewhere.

The city’s proposal for moving the encampment back to the Benchlands now might seem to run contrary to FEMA’s guidance in the fall. But given that the winter rainy season is over, Benchlands is “not likely to be threatened by flooding” anytime soon, city attorneys say.

As part of its proposal to move unsheltered people back into the Benchlands, the city would set ground rules for the camp’s inhabitants to abide by. Parts of the proposal would address some of the city’s concerns around public health, crime and other safety issues, while still providing some of the benefits of the encampment to unsheltered people during the pandemic.

The proposal would move the homeless away from the park’s public amenities, such as the lawn bowling green and duck pond, by creating 122 socially distant spots for tents along the river. Judge Van Keulen said the tent layout in the Benchlands seemed “reasonable,” and that public health and safety rules were “appropriate.”

Prince, the attorney representing the unsheltered people, said his clients were considering the city’s offer. “We’re not rejecting it out of hand, but we have what we feel are significant concerns and obstacles,” he told van Keulen.

The city’s slate of rules includes several COVID-19 social distancing and masking protocols, but also proposes bans on drug and alcohol use; smoking and camp fires; littering; violence; and “aggressive behavior,” as well as restrictions on where people can keep their belongings. It also would mandate “quiet hours” between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. in the park.

Prince said the behavioral requirements set forth by the city were unrealistic, and that the city is already able to crack down on some of those issues by making arrests and enforcing laws around drug-related crimes and disorderly conduct. Bronson said the city was worried enforcing municipal laws at the park would constitute a violation of the court order, and asked for that exception to be carved out of the injunction if van Keulen kept it in place.

Prince also argued the floodplain was an unsuitable location for the encampment, both because of the threat of flooding, and because it could prevent Santa Cruz from receiving critical reimbursements from FEMA. The low-lying nature of the plain would also make it more difficult for service providers — including medical outreach workers providing COVID-19 vaccinations — to reach those living there, Prince said.

Van Keulen asked the Santa Cruz attorneys for information about the status of the county’s vaccination of the unsheltered population, as well as support for the city’s assertion that the Benchlands is “not likely to be threatened by flooding” in coming months. The county began vaccinating people who are experiencing homelessness this week, but it’s unclear when all homeless residents will have access to the vaccine.

Both sides were given a week to collect more information and exchange it with each other by March 23. “The exchange should include the proposed order from the city,” she said, noting the city’s proposal “should speak to the basic essentials of the individuals moving, how many would move and some basic limitations, perhaps, on behavior.” The proposal should also include a timeframe for how long the Benchlands would be available to unsheltered people, the judge said.

Attorneys for the city and encampment residents will meet and discuss the proposal and submit additional material to the court by noon on March 26. They will then appear before van Keulen at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, March 30.