The view of the heavily soaked benchlands in San Lorenzo Park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

‘We need more safe spaces’: As more weather approaches, city, homelessness advocates seek solutions

With another stretch of inclement weather on the way, the city of Santa Cruz looks to mitigate the impact on the unhoused — particularly those rooted at the Benchlands encampment along the San Lorenzo River.

The What: City officials gathered virtually Monday to discuss advance planning for unhoused residents in advance of the wet weather expected this week. The National Weather Service is predicting between four and six inches of rain over the coming days — and six straight days of precipitation.

The So What: Last Monday’s storm impacted many of the city’s unhoused residents due to the changes in predicted weather patterns and limited advance notice of those changes. Photojournalist and advocate for the unhoused Alekz Londos captured the flooded Benchlands encampment with drone footage, showing the ramifications of Monday’s storm.

With this week’s forecast, city officials said the goal was to ensure that the unhoused population was protected and prepared. Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner, joined in the meeting by police, fire and homelessness response leaders, encouraged residents along the low-lying areas of San Lorenzo River to evacuate in advance.

“Job number one of the city is to protect lives, especially among our most vulnerable,” Brunner said.

Voices: Mostly, community volunteers and advocates are frustrated with the lack of advance planning.

“As far as I know, the city and the county don’t have the supplies to give to people,” said local activist Joy Schendledecker. “We’re sourcing things that the city and county should be coordinating on —clearly, they did not have a robust emergency plan going into last week, I hope they have a more robust plan now.”

Her team, the Mutual Aid Working Group, held warming stations at San Lorenzo River Park for three mornings last week following the Dec. 13 storm. Schendledecker said up to 80 people visited the stations two of the three mornings, and saw a continued need.

“The people living in these flood zones, we need more safe spaces for them to stay in advance of rains,” she said.

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Brent Adams, program director for the Warming Center Program, agreed. His staff kept their shelter open four nights last week, with up to 50 people sleeping overnight, but over 100 individuals coming in for blankets, hand warmers and soup every evening.

Adams explained that he has to be conservative with his decision to open the shelter this week, as the Warming Center is typically only open 20 nights throughout the winter season. His team doesn’t have the funding or resources to stay open for much longer — and that leads to further frustration toward the city’s and county’s response.

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“I wish we as a community were more aware of the challenges of homelessness and could create a collective vision moving forward so we don’t have to see these situations time and again,” he said. “For all the millions of dollars the county and city has spent, there’s nothing to show for it — it’s always emergency spending.”

What’s Next: The city has redirected those who sheltered at the temporary emergency shelter at River Street Garage to Depot Park, which will remain open as an emergency evacuation site for an undetermined amount of time.

However, as the city’s Homelessness Response Manager Larry Imwalle stated, Depot Park is able to house 32 persons — and is currently at capacity.

City spokesperson Elizabeth Smith said Santa Cruz is still working on evacuation sites should they be required.