Brent Adams, of the Footbridge Services Center, talks about his program serving the homeless population at Camp Paradise.
Brent Adams, of the Footbridge Services Center, talks about his program serving the homeless population at Camp Paradise.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Homeless services nonprofit focuses on basic needs; “No one agency...can address the issue on its own”

While most Santa Cruz County non-profits catering to the unsheltered population aim to create permanent housing solutions, Brent Adams’ Footbridge Services Center fulfills more immediate needs like shower and laundry services, storage facilities and more.

For the past two years, Brent Adams has led the Footbridge Services Center, which is located adjacent to a homeless encampment tucked away at the end of Felker Street along the San Lorenzo River banks, called Camp Paradise. While many local organizations focus on housing for unsheltered people, Footbridge focuses on more basic needs.

For two hours every morning and evening, the service center is open to campers — typically 30 a day — who make the short trek to do laundry, charge devices and store their belongings. Every Sunday, a shower truck is parked in the lot where dozens are able to rinse off. And, in late July, Adams helped launch the Secret Garden Women’s Shelter in the office units next door, with the help of a 20-woman support team. As of earlier this month, eight of the nine available beds were filled by women who had previously lived on the street.

“We want to raise the floor of experience from what’s existing out there to something more clean, safe and dignified,” Adams said.

From protesting inequality to addressing it head-on

The Footbridge Services Center is a part of the Warming Center Program, which Adams founded with fellow activists in 2013. The group first came together in 2011 around the Occupy Santa Cruz movement, which was inspired by national protests against wealth inequality and political corruption. Members initially sought to create an organized homeless encampment, but when they were unable, they found another way to help: a pop-up warming center open to anyone who needed it on Santa Cruz’s coldest nights.

After organizing the warming center in different churches for seven years, it became clear to Adams that unhoused people have a need for storage space. He began driving a van, shuttling around 80 bins of people’s belongings. This soon morphed into the Footbridge Services Center, where Adams could help meet more basic needs.

“The real revolution, in my opinion, is just getting involved with people who sleep outside in your community and trying to improve lives,” said Adams, adding that he’s come a long way from his anarchist days.

The 56-year-old has worked as everything from a documentary filmmaker to a fine dining waiter and a street musician. He said his salary as leader of the Warming Center Program is low and that he himself has struggled with the unaffordable housing market in Santa Cruz, where he has lived for 30 years. He now lives on a boat in the harbor.

Camp Paradise, at the end of Felker Street along the San Lorenzo River banks, in Santa Cruz.
Camp Paradise, at the end of Felker Street along the San Lorenzo River banks, in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Besides Adams, the Footbridge Services Center and Warming Center Program has four part-time employees and a list of at least 500 volunteers. The warming center has received some city and county funding in the past, but the Footbridge Services Center — and the new women’s shelter — receive no public funding, relying entirely on private donors.

Most local organizations that receive government dollars employ a “housing-first” model, Adams said, but he’s more focused on “healing people from the ground up” and giving them the tools to get housing later on.

Housing Matters, as it name might suggest, focuses more on putting roofs over heads. It provides some emergency day services, but its main strategies to combat homelessness are placing people in existing units and building permanent supportive housing, according to Chief Initiatives Officer Tom Stagg. Permanent supportive housing relies on both affordable housing assistance and voluntary support services.

Footbridge Services Center, Stagg said, adds capacity to basic-needs services and gives people more options to receive those services. Housing Matters and Footbridge often refer clients to one another, he said.

But, Stagg said, “no one agency or jurisdiction can address the issue on its own.”

Darrie Ganzhorn, who heads up the Homeless Garden Project, said Footbridge truly fills an unmet need. Ganzhorn said a number of garden trainees — all of whom have experienced homelessness — have benefited from Footbridge’s storage program, laundry and shower facilities, among other services.

Minimizing neighborhood impact

Adams said he works to balance the services his nonprofit provides while being respectful of the neighbors near the encampment. When the Footbridge center moved into its Felker Street location in 2019, tents popped up in the cul-de-sac, and people were coming into the property at all hours, Adams said.

Now, passersby would barely know the service center is there. The Footbridge team cleans up trash on the street daily and has worked with the unhoused community to minimize its impact.

Camp Paradise is what’s known as an “agreement camp” — where residents have to abide by a set of community values such as picking up trash and a ban on drugs. Adams has turned both Camp Paradise and Dakota Landing, a fenced encampment at the San Lorenzo Park benchlands, into agreement camps. These camps are largely city-sanctioned, but the city could still move them in the winter when the water levels of the river rise.

During a mid-August walk through Camp Paradise, posters still hung for the recent summer barbeque, at which Adams shared tactics to minimize fire risk. One resident rode her new bike through the camp to show Adams. Another camper planted basil and orange and lemon trees outside a tent.

Alex M., a 38-year-old camper who asked that his last name not be used, has been living in the camp since he fell off the wagon a few months prior. He had been working in a morgue and fell victim to a severe case of COVID-19, which challenged his ability to stay sober. This slip-up cost him both his job and housing, he said. For Alex, Camp Paradise is just a “stepping stone,” and he said he plans to get into a sober living house soon.

Alex M.’s beliefs about safety and cleanliness mirror those of Adams.

“I want the community to know that there are people down here that care about the neighbors and the environment,” he said.

According to Adams, the problem in Santa Cruz and in cities across the state is the story we tell ourselves about homelessness. Through the basic programs he offers at the Footbridge Services Center and the accompanying agreement camps, Adams aims to challenge the prevailing beliefs about homelessness.

“We have to have a belief in humanity,” he said. “People have the ability to heal.”