Santa Cruz city employee Megan Bunch helps set up tents at the Benchlands
Santa Cruz city employee Megan Bunch helps set up tents at the city’s new homeless encampment in the Benchlands. This camp replaced the camp at nearby San Lorenzo Park.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Is end to legal clash over the San Lorenzo Park homeless encampment in sight?

There have been signs of progress in the litigation between the homeless union and Santa Cruz officials in advance of a key hearing Thursday, but sticking points remain.

An end may be within reach to a lawsuit that prompted a federal judge to bar the city of Santa Cruz from clearing an unsanctioned homeless encampment in San Lorenzo Park over the winter.

The city and the plaintiff in the case, the Santa Cruz Homeless Union, are set to be back before federal magistrate Susan van Keulen this week after she ordered both sides to bring forward a proposal to end the litigation. If a deal is reached, it would set the stage for van Keulen to lift her injunction against the city.

The hearing — set for 10 a.m. on Thursday, May 13 — follows a compromise reached between the two sides to move the encampment from San Lorenzo Park proper to the nearby Benchlands floodplain next to the San Lorenzo River. As of late last week, 128 camping spaces the city had recently set up in the floodplain were full — and upper San Lorenzo Park was closed for cleaning.

City officials are focused on moving unsheltered individuals to the Benchlands “in a way that is safe, humane, and will improve conditions on the ground for San Lorenzo Park users and neighbors,” Santa Cruz spokesperson Elizabeth Smith said in a statement to Lookout. “Ultimately, per the direction of the city council, the city will work toward returning the park to its intended purpose as a shared public space.”

Under a recent compromise between the city and the homeless union, the city agreed to establish 122 campsites — although it set up six extra, bringing the total to 128 — in the Benchlands in exchange for being allowed to clear out upper San Lorenzo Park. Residents of the new camp must abide by a list of rules, including quiet hours and prohibitions on drug and alcohol use, smoking and littering.

The homeless union, in its most recent court filing on May 6, proposed creating a framework to end its litigation if the city would agree to keep the Benchlands encampment open “for an extended period of time during which a more comprehensive approach to the underlying issues can be taken by both sides.” Anthony Prince, the attorney representing the homeless union, wrote that the group is “encouraged by the current situation” and cited “significant progress” that could end the litigation.

But the city, in its own filing on May 6, seemed cold to the idea of keeping the Benchlands open long-term. “At this time, the City has no immediate plans to disband the organized camp it just created,” Deputy City Attorney Catherine Bronson wrote. “On the other hand, the City cannot commit to hosting this encampment at the Benchlands for the long term, given that the park and neighborhood impacts are unknown.”

Thursday’s hearing before van Keulen is expected to delve into those diverging positions further.

Van Keulen had issued her temporary injunction in January, preventing the city from clearing the San Lorenzo Park encampment in a ruling that was “closely tied” to the COVID-19 pandemic and the risk of the spread of disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against breaking up homeless encampments during the height of the pandemic.

The Santa Cruz County government last year ran a managed homeless encampment in the Benchlands. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency in mid-November ordered the county to clear the area before the rainy season began due to the risk of flooding. (Concerns about flooding have since ebbed; allowing the city of Santa Cruz to establish its encampment in the Benchlands.)

After the county shuttered its Benchlands encampment, 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 — some choosing to stay put in San Lorenzo Park.

In response, the Santa Cruz city manager issued an emergency order to clear out San Lorenzo Park in December, citing concerns about litter, drug use and crime. The move prompted homeless residents, represented by the homeless union, to sue to block that order — igniting the months-long lawsuit that now might wind down.

This week’s court hearing about the San Lorenzo Park/Benchlands situation comes amid two other major developments involving Santa Cruz’s unsheltered population:

  • CalTrans on Monday began evicting residents of another large homeless encampment, at the intersection of Highways 1 and 9, after on Friday giving them 72 hours’ notice to leave. That camp, believed to house more than 130 people at its height, needs to be disbanded to make way for a major road construction project at the intersection. Homeless advocates were at the intersection Friday working to try to find places for the displaced campers to relocate, which might be a tall order. A Santa Cruz County spokesman said that more than 800 people are already in local, county-affiliated shelters, with hundreds more on wait lists.
  • The Santa Cruz City Council on Tuesday will begin considering the next version of a law that would attempt to restrict where homeless people can camp overnight citywide. A previous version of the law — called the Temporary Outdoor Living Ordinance — was scrapped last month after an outcry from residents fearful it would push homeless people into their neighborhoods. The agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting — including directions to attend it remotely — can be found here. In recent court filings, the homeless union said it was “troubled” by the direction of the new version of the ban.