From the Civic to Depot Park: How are Santa Cruz’s unhoused citizens holding up in the storms?

One of the 23 unhoused folks who stayed at the Depot Park shelter Monday night preps for a morning smoke.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Helping Santa Cruz’s most vulnerable residents, those experiencing chronic homelessness, find cover from the elements has been challenging during this historic run of extreme winter weather. An emergency 24/7 shelter at the Civic Auditorium was shut down due to what the city called “inadequate resources” and what others described as a chaotic environment. Another smaller overnight shelter that launched at Depot Park is attempting to fill the void and staffed by an organization better equipped to handle the unhoused population, observers say.

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Finding shelter from the storm hasn’t been easy for Santa Cruz’s most vulnerable unhoused population.

“It just keeps coming,” says Thomas, 39, as he takes a drag from his cigarette near the small tarp-covered encampment he has set up next to the downtown library to keep himself, and friends in need, reasonably dry at night.

Thomas, 39, has been surviving on a mostly outdoor existence since age 15.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“If you’ve been out here long enough,” he says, “you know how to survive.”

In a small county with an estimated 2,299 people experiencing homelessness as of last February, one of the largest concentrations in the nation, there are only 352 shelter beds and no dedicated winter shelters on either end of the county.

That means, when a string of bomb cyclones suddenly lines up off the coast, survival instincts are essential for those on the streets and scramble instincts are key for city and county officials. Dozens of small encampments have sprung up inside downtown parking structures and under eaves wherever they can be found.

“Our calls for assistance have skyrocketed since New Year’s Eve,” said Monica Lippi, who works on homelessness response for the county alongside Robert Ratner in the Housing For Health division. “We try our best to connect them to whatever assistance is available.”

Especially those among the “chronically homeless” population like Thomas, who said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and underwent heart surgery recently. Members of the unhoused population living on the streets of downtown Santa Cruz, and those who work closest with them as service providers, described to Lookout this week a mixed bag of attempted support systems.

A general evacuation center set up at the Civic Auditorium for three days last week was disbanded with more extreme weather approaching because the city said it lacked “the necessary resources” to manage it.

The Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The 24/7 shelter brought in up to 100 people at a time, the majority from the chronically unhoused community, but wasn’t staffed by those who regularly deal with that population.

Though the city had early partnership conversations with Housing Matters, members of the city’s Parks and Recreation department, the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County and a local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) ultimately provided the staffing, city officials said.

It took 60 workers per day (20 for each of three eight-hour shifts) to staff the entire operation, which was set up as a general evacuation center, not specific to the needs of the homeless, city officials emphasized.

A security guard who worked the Civic told Lookout the scene was “chaotic” due to what he called “flare-ups,” from arguments to fights to accusations of theft.

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“I could only deal with one and there would be others breaking out elsewhere,” he said. “They eventually brought in the police, which only makes things more tense because a lot of the unhoused population has had bad experiences with them previously.”

He said it felt like a coming-back-together of the Benchlands, the encampment along the San Lorenzo River that remained in place by court order over a two-year stretch amid the COVID pandemic but was finally disbanded by the city late last year, amid much contentious debate.

It might qualify as one of the bright sides of this winter’s homelessness situation that no one is living this year in that flooded, mud-soaked zone between the county building and the river, said the city’s homelessness response manager, Larry Imwalle.

The Benchlands zone as seen on Tuesday, without the encampment that was in the same muddy place last winter.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I’m glad we could get everyone out of the Benchlands before this event,” he said.

The city used the second floor of the nearby River Street parking structure as emergency shelter last year, so getting into the heated Civic — which happened to be clear of any events — was an improvement in the minds of many.

Thomas said he walked across the street from his small encampment in anticipation of getting into a warm tent on the floor of the Civic for a few nights, but turned around immediately and decided to remain outside.

“By the way it was set up and the people who were running it, you could just tell it was gonna be mayhem,” he said. “I took one look and said, ‘Uh-uh, not for me.’ Better to be outside.”

Both Imwalle and Ratner acknowledge the difficulty of pulling together the ideal resources on short notice. “Running a shelter does require systems, experience, trained staff and quality improvement efforts,” Ratner said.

Onto the Depot Park warming center

As the Civic closed, the city contacted one of the nonprofit organizations gaining a reputation for providing those services, and on Monday an overnight warming center was opened at Depot Park by the Santa Cruz Free Guide. The four-month-old enterprise is trying to fill what many observers recognize as a crucial gap in local homelessness response: a nimble service provider with expertise in dealing with the most acute challenges.

Twenty-three of 25 sleeping spots were taken Monday night at Depot Park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

On early Tuesday morning, a group of 23 people was awakening from whatever sleep they had managed to get inside the warm building with mattresses strewn across the floor as raindrops continued to fall outside.

The center will open up from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. on the nights city officials, in consultation with Free Guide leadership, believe the elements pose a danger to those used to sleeping next to nearby rivers and streams.

Evan Morrison, director of the Santa Cruz Free Guide program, at the Safe RV Parking program at the Armory.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“The feeling is we’ve got to keep doing it — people need a place to go,” said Free Guide director Evan Morrison, who four months ago started the RV Safe Parking program at the National Guard Armory, which is also contracted by the city to provide services to those looking to transition into housing.

One man who was grateful to have had a spot at Depot Park on Monday night was a 43-year-old who goes by the name Shotgun. He said on most nights he’s used to sleeping wherever his head ends up landing in the downtown area, so long as one leg is tucked through the frame of his bike to protect it from getting stolen.

“You fall asleep around here, and it’s an invitation to have your stuff stolen,” he said.

After spending one night at the Civic to get out of the wetness, he decided that environment was “too chaotic.” He said the vibe he got at Depot Park was much calmer and allowed him a rare peaceful night of sleep.

This is already a stressed-out population when they come to you, so you’ve got to have very clear rules and then talk to them with respect.

— Corey Mosely, Santa Cruz Free Guide

“This is already a stressed-out population when they come to you, so you’ve got to have very clear rules and then talk to them with respect,” said Corey Mosely, program manager of the Free Guide. “Everyone on this team has been doing this work for a long time.”

Looking for crisis capacity

Former Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane said those on the front lines of the unhoused crisis locally often pinpoint the capacity for organizations to take on this challenging work during a crisis as one of the biggest hurdles.

“It just really doesn’t exist,” Lane said. “The city, the county, Housing Matters, the AFC (Affiliated Faith Communities), they all have some capacity. But when the system gets strained in an emergency like it is now, it’s not like they have the ability to bring more people on quickly and grow services.”

Corey Mosely, program director for the Santa Cruz Free Guide.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s why multiple observers of the homelessness response landscape are looking for organizations like the Free Guide — which Morrison said has aspirations to scale up — to potentially help fill some of those service gaps in the future.

Lane said capping shelters at around 40 is a safer way to keep the situation tenable. “Even really skilled service providers are going to have problems when it gets up to a number like 100,” he said.

Morrison said he envisions six to eight shelters spread throughout the county in order to reach more people where they are. If there are locations already identified for use, his organization is interested in providing the services. In his estimation, the area needs to triple the current 352 available shelter beds — getting closer to 1,000 — to meet the needs of this community.

Evan Morrison walks through the Safe RV Parking program at the Armory at DeLaveaga Park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

On the other side of downtown near the library, Thomas said he had heard that a smaller overnight shelter had popped up at Depot Park. But it was too far a distance for him to relocate all his stuff. Besides, he said, he’s been living a mostly outside existence since age 15.

But then Thomas paused briefly before acknowledging the more practical truth. His recent heart surgery and the cold, wet winter have been a tough combination for him. He said he is starting to realize the effects of outdoor living are catching up as he approaches his fourth decade.

“I used to go to school and have a job and still live outside. I thought it was a big waste of money to pay for rent,” he said. “But I’m getting older, I had my heart operated on before I even turned 40 and living outside isn’t really conducive to healing.”

As presented by staff from the Homeless Persons Health Project, the county’s primary medical provider for the unhoused, during a ceremony to honor the deaths of 137 Santa Cruz County residents who had experienced homelessness in 2022: The average age of those dying homeless in this county dropped below 50 for the first time in 15 years.


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