With Benchlands clearing complete, Santa Cruz aims for spring park reopening

The final phase of the clearing of the Benchlands homeless encampment
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Though just over 30% of evicted Benchlands residents opted for shelter at the armory, the clearing of Santa Cruz County’s largest homeless encampment is now complete, taking only seven phases instead of the anticipated nine or 10. City Homelessness Response Manager Larry Imwalle views the process as successful despite the low rate of uptake.

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The Benchlands clearing is officially complete, just shy of two months after the process began in September to shut down Santa Cruz County’s largest homeless encampment.

While there was enough space to offer all unhoused Benchlands residents shelter, city Homelessness Response Manager Larry Imwalle said, the uptake remained fairly minimal. Of the 217 Benchlands residents given notice in Phases 1 through 6, 68 accepted shelter — a rate of about 31%.

Of the 24 evicted from the area along the San Lorenzo River in the seventh and final phase, 10 opted for the armory, while six others received vouchers for emergency housing. It is unclear how many of those six ended up at the armory.

Imwalle said that outreach staff will monitor the community for other encampments and aim to close them, and offer shelter to those living in them. Overall, though, he said views the Benchlands clearing as a success.

“Our goal was to be able to close this camp, as it represented a number of public safety and health risks in the community,” he said. “At the end of the day, we were able to accomplish that through this phased approach.”

The final phase of the clearing of the Benchlands homeless encampment
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The city’s expressed goal — clearing the large camp believed to be unsafe, particularly with winter rains on the way — has been consistent. While the city offered relocation to its unhoused inhabitants, it has not been the city’s goal to house all of those leaving the camp or track their whereabouts once they left the Benchlands.

The clearing has elicited opposition from its beginning. Opponents of the relocation have called it unconstitutional, and said the camp should not have been cleared.

The process, originally estimated to take nine or 10 phases to be completed before winter, took only seven. The Overlook shelter at the armory building remained the go-to and only option offered to those evicted.

Imwalle said that as the process progressed, a higher percentage of residents began opting for the shelter, and offered an inference for why that might be.

“There is likely some duplication in that 217 figure, because people would move farther into the camp [instead of taking shelter],” he said, adding that it’s possible that more took the city up on its offered shelter option once trekking further into the encampment was no longer possible. “That helps explain why we’ve seen a higher percentage take the shelter option in the later phases.”

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Imwalle also said that there are multiple reasons why shelter space did not run out.

“There are a number of people that went up to the shelter who then elected not to stay in the program. Short story, the turnover rate has created additional capacity,” he said, adding that coordination with other partners has helped with capacity, too. “There’s also space at Housing Matters’ campus that we’ve connected people to.”

Imwalle did not have exact numbers on how many might have taken shelter at Housing Matters’ campus. Housing Matters CEO Phil Kramer, however, confirmed that since August, the organization has taken in 45 people from the Benchlands at its emergency shelter program, which connects each resident to case management and housing navigation support.

So now that the Benchlands are fully cleared, what’s next?

Imwalle said that city homeless outreach staff will remain on site this Thursday and next Tuesday, and will be able to coordinate with anyone else interested in shelter.

Cleanup of the final zone could stretch into early next week, after which the city’s parks and recreation department will take the lead in restoring the area into the public park and open space it was previously.

The timeline is not set in stone, but the process is expected to take place throughout the winter, with the park anticipated to reopen to the public by spring.

Imwalle is satisfied with the coordination between city and county, which he says has strengthened through the process.

“The size and scopes of the Benchlands brought us together to work on providing better shelter and housing options,” he said. “It became a moment to focus that coordination and work together this way.”

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