Santa Cruz city employee Megan Bunch helps set up new tents at the city's new homeless encampment in the Benchlands in April.
Santa Cruz city employee Megan Bunch helps set up new tents at the city’s new homeless encampment in the Benchlands in April.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Housing

Will June hearing be the end of injunction vs. city in Benchlands homeless lawsuit?

A federal judge could dissolve an injunction keeping the city of Santa Cruz from clearing a homeless encampment in the San Lorenzo Benchlands at a June 29 hearing set Thursday.

A federal lawsuit over an unsanctioned homeless encampment in San Lorenzo Park appeared to inch closer to a resolution Thursday after the judge set a June hearing to discuss the future of an injunction that bars the city of Santa Cruz from clearing the camp.

After hearing status updates from both parties in the case — the city and the Santa Cruz Homeless Union, which filed the suit in December — federal magistrate Susan van Keulen said the June 29 hearing will serve to show cause why the injunction should not be ended at that time.

“I think there is some life left in the injunction, but the day will come for it to be dissolved,” she said.

Thursday’s hearing followed a compromise between the two sides to move the encampment from San Lorenzo Park proper to the nearby Benchlands floodplain next to the San Lorenzo River. Under the compromise, the city agreed to establish a certain number of campsites in the Benchlands in exchange for being allowed to clear out upper San Lorenzo Park. Deputy city attorney Cassie Bronson said the latest numbers show 134 tents at the new Benchlands camp.

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The homeless union in recent court filings proposed creating a framework to end its litigation if the city would agree to keep the encampment open “for an extended period of time during which a more comprehensive approach to the underlying issues can be taken by both sides.” City attorney Tony Condotti said Thursday he doesn’t think the city has immediate plans to disband the camp once the injunction is dissolved.

“My question is: Do we need to have that injunction in place for the city to continue to do what it’s been doing?” Condotti said, adding that the city isn’t necessarily opposed to continuing the injunction in the short term, but that it is not “the best tool” to manage the homelessness situation.

Van Keulen had granted a temporary injunction in favor of unhoused residents in January, preventing the city from clearing the encampment in a ruling that was “closely tied” to the state of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fear then was that breaking up the camp could exacerbate virus spread.

Noting that metrics around the pandemic continue to improve, driven by greater access to vaccines, van Keulen directed the two parties to meet ahead of the June 29 hearing to discuss the issues that were raised Thursday, including what management of the camp looks like post-injunction.

Anthony Prince, an attorney representing the homeless union, agreed that the pandemic appeared to be moving toward an end and said he was encouraged by progress made in the case, but added that some concerns remain for the group, including getting data on how many residents of the camp have been provided or offered vaccines.

Officials have said that 80% of people in the park have been offered the vaccine, but Prince said no actual numbers had been provided to back up that figure. Bronson said the vaccination effort is a county function, and that according to county officials, their mobile vaccination unit comes to the park at least once a week.

Van Keulen said her focus is on the efforts to make the vaccine available. “And I have seen those efforts in the declarations that were provided,” she said.

Prince also pointed to two other homelessness-related developments playing out in the community — the disbanding of another camp and the drafting of a new city ordinance — that he argued should be taken into account in this case, though van Keulen said those are beyond the scope of the matter before her.

Caltrans on Monday began clearing another large homeless encampment at the intersections of Highways 1 and 9 to make way for a major road construction project. And Santa Cruz City Council on Tuesday gave an initial nod to an ordinance that would ban outdoor sleeping everywhere in Santa Cruz except at sites specifically designated by the city for overnight camping.

With the enforcement of the ordinance and the breaking up of the other encampment, Prince said more people would move to the Benchlands.

“We do think it’s going to have an impact fairly soon on the situation,” he said.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for 11 a.m. June 29.