A homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park in Santa Cruz on Dec. 18, 2020.
The homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park in Santa Cruz on Dec. 18, 2020. The camp, home to 150-plus people, will be moved to the Benchlands area of the park after a months-long legal battle between the city of Santa Cruz and the residents of the camp.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

San Lorenzo Park homeless camp to move to the Benchlands as a compromise in federal lawsuit

Per the compromise, the city will establish 122 campsites — adequately spaced out — in the Benchlands, which is a floodplain along the San Lorenzo River.

A homeless encampment that has been in San Lorenzo Park for months will be moved to the Benchlands, under a proposal that federal Judge Susan van Keulen approved Tuesday after months of legal back-and-forth between the city of Santa Cruz and the local homeless union.

Per the compromise, the city will establish 122 campsites — spaced six feet apart — in the Benchlands, a floodplain along the San Lorenzo River.

Currently, there are people camping in both the Benchlands and the main park area. People who are currently living in the Benchlands area will move into the park while the city prepares the Benchlands for the new campsites. The process to set up the campsites is expected to take about two weeks, city attorney Cassie Bronson told van Keulen, and the city will create a process for unsheltered people to obtain permits to camp there.

The blue dots (above) represent the campsites that will make up the planned Benchlands homeless encampment.
The blue dots (above) represent the 12-foot by 12-foot campsites that will make up the planned Benchlands homeless encampment. Currently, unsheltered people are living throughout the park, including around the water feature toward the lower right corner of this photo, and in the Benchlands.
(Federal court records)

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 has for months advised against breaking up homeless encampments since it could create a COVID-19 threat to the unsheltered and the community at large.

With dwindling COVID-19 case trends and more vaccinations among unhoused people, the issue was revisited in a March 17 hearing, when the court heard arguments on whether the injunction should be extended or dissolved.

It was during this 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 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.

This led to the city issuing an emergency order to clear out San Lorenzo Park in December, citing concerns about litter, drug use and crime. That prompted homeless residents, represented by the homeless union, to sue to block that order.

While the Benchlands still lies in a floodplain, Santa Cruz attorneys have argued that the rainy season has passed and the Benchlands is suitable for camping. As part of its proposal to move unsheltered people back into the Benchlands, the city will set rules for the camp’s inhabitants, including a ban on drugs and alcohol.

On Tuesday, van Keulen largely adopted the city’s proposed code of conduct. The rules were designed to address the city’s public safety concerns, while still providing some of the benefits of an encampment to unsheltered people during the pandemic.

Here is the city’s slate of 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 will consider one request from the homeless union’s attorney, Anthony Prince, that the city establishes 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 should continue discussions and try to come to an agreement on how to resolve the lawsuit, van Keulen said Tuesday. The two sides will appear in court again at 9:30 a.m. on April 27.