Protesters form wall to protect homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park; police stand down
Protesters on Monday formed a human wall and ultimately prevented Santa Cruz police from dispersing residents from parts of a homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park.
The action stopped the second phase of a three-phase plan to shut down the park amid complaints that the encampment had grown unsafe. Rather than clash with protesters and encampment residents, Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills said his department chose to deescalate the situation and delay action.
The department’s actions came after city manager Martín Bernal handed down an emergency order on Dec. 17 to close the park.
For at least a month, San Lorenzo Park has been home to a large number of people who chose to stay put in downtown Santa Cruz after the Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered Santa Cruz County to move its homeless encampment out of the nearby Benchlands floodplain. The county relocated that camp to the Armory in DeLaveaga Park, and it is now completely full — as are all other shelter beds countywide, according to county officials.
A coalition of roughly 50 people, calling themselves Stop The Sweeps, formed a barrier ahead of the officers’ arrival at 8:30 a.m., with some shouting at the police through megaphones.
Officers eventually dismantled a chain-link fence the protesters had barricaded themselves behind and moved past the loud, chanting human wall and into San Lorenzo Park. The protesters continued to surround the police as they walked around the park’s encampments.
Rather than engage the crowd, the officers eventually left the park without incident.
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By mid-morning, four police officers remained, standing on a sidewalk across the street from the encampment. Inside San Lorenzo Park, protesters and residents mulled about, drinking cups of coffee and bowls of chicken noodle soup provided to them by volunteers.
Protest organizers told Lookout they thought that law enforcement would return in “full force” later Monday and possibly make arrests, but Mills said that was not true. He said the police are pushing back the sweep to another day.
“We choose to deescalate things rather than escalate,” Mills said, adding that police gave 72-hour notices to people living at the park and explained the three phases of the sweep to them.
“Today is not a final deadline,” he said.
The first phase occurred last week, when a grassy patch on one side of San Lorenzo Park’s duck pond was cleared out. The second sweep was set to occur Monday morning, though it was unclear what section of the park was to be emptied.
Mills declined to specify when his officers would return to carry out the second phase. He said residents of the park could be arrested for violating the city’s executive order, but that his department often issues citations during sweeps instead of taking people into police custody.
The city’s order cited overcrowding, fire safety issues, trash build-up, reported criminal activity and damage to the grass and trees as reasons for closing the park.
But homeless advocates and community activists say the city’s reasoning is flawed and disregards the possible negative health impacts of moving hundreds of people out of the park, away from centralized services and potentially into other pockets around Santa Cruz.
County Health Officer Gail Newel and her staff weren’t consulted about the city’s decision, and “if we had been, we would have advised against this,” Newel wrote in an electronic message that was the subject of a recent Lookout report.
Contributor: Kevin Painchaud