With Benchlands ‘clearing’ again delayed, city council approves cleanup budget

The Benchlands area along the San Lorenzo River
The city of Santa Cruz is hoping to move residents of the Benchlands encampment to other shelter in phases.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz City Council allocated $1 million toward the cleanup of the San Lorenzo Benchlands encampment. The clearing of the encampment has again been moved back — with city officials estimating that the first residents of the park will be moved in mid-to-late-September, pending the setup of a Salvation Army-run shelter inside the National Guard Armory building in DeLaveaga Park.

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The controversial clearing of the San Lorenzo River Benchlands homeless encampment is moving slowly along.

On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz City Council heard updates from staff about its ongoing response to homelessness in the area — including the city’s plans to clear the homeless encampment at the Benchlands, which officials now say will begin in early-to-mid-September. The timeline for the clearing has already been pushed back twice: first from July, then from this month.

The council also voted 6-1 to allocate $1 million to the environmental cleanup of the Benchlands, with Councilmember Sandy Brown dissenting. The cleanup effort would follow the phased move of Benchlands residents.

“We have an environmental crisis occurring in the camp,” Deputy City Manager Lisa Murphy said. “The degradation along the riverbed has been immense.”

The hope, said City Manager Matt Huffaker, is that this cleanup effort will be the city’s last at the Benchlands.

“Our goal is for this to be a permanent shift away from using the Benchlands for purposes of temporary shelter, and move through a full restoration so that the park can be available to our community members for its intended purpose,” Huffaker said, citing the availability on the horizon of new services like year-round sheltering.

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The Benchlands sits on the eastern bank of the San Lorenzo River, adjacent to San Lorenzo Park. City officials estimate that some 225 people live in the sprawling homeless encampment which has occupied the region since June 2020, though advocates for the unhoused put the figure as high as 500.

The city’s homeless response manager, Larry Imwalle, said the timeline of the clearing continues to rest on the setup of 60 new shelter spaces inside the National Guard Armory building in DeLaveaga Park. The Salvation Army, which will manage the shelter in conjunction with the city and county, is still in the midst of hiring staff for the location, delaying the move.

Imwalle estimated that the clearing process will likely take several weeks after the city moves the first Benchlands campers out, though crucially, he said, each step of the move hinges on the availability of shelter space. In taking a phased approach, Imwalle said part of the city’s hope is to guard against the kind of legal challenges that hampered previous efforts to clear large-scale homeless encampments in Santa Cruz. The city will clear additional segments of the Benchlands only once shelter space is freed — whether that be by adding new space to overall capacity or by waiting for current shelter residents to move out of existing spaces.

“The city is confident that the plan it put forward — that is thoughtful and systematic and tied to the availability of shelter — puts us in a good legal position,” Imwalle said.

A big question at Tuesday’s council meeting: Why have some unhoused people been leaving the county’s homeless shelters or outright refusing entry to them? Vice-mayor Donna Meyers asked staff members at the meeting whether the city tracks cases of individuals refusing shelter, and the reasons they give for doing so.

The city has recently erected new fencing in the Benchlands area.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I know some people legitimately are fearful of going into more organized or more populated situations,” Meyers said. “So I’m just curious: How do we manage that information?”

City officials acknowledge that some residents of the Benchlands who moved to city- and county-managed homeless shelters have, “for one reason or another,” moved back to the encampment, independent of the closure of shelters at the Oceana Inn and Armory in June.

Imwalle told Lookout that shelter residents leaving the sheltering system isn’t a determining factor in the plans to move people out of Benchlands in phases, but the city recognizes that some people will inevitably do so. Imwalle said he wouldn’t want to speak to the individual reasons why a person living in the Benchlands would refuse shelter when offered it.

“I think our responsibility, as we go through this closure operation in the Benchlands, is to make sure that a shelter option is available to those individuals,” Imwalle said.

However, Imwalle said at the meeting that the city has been increasing its outreach efforts in recent months to get to the bottom of why Benchlands residents might refuse shelter. It plans to connect Benchlands residents with case workers, he added, to assess their individual situations and recommend best courses of action.