After very public Benchlands clearing, Santa Cruz taking quieter approach with Pogonip homeless encampment

a homeless encampment in the forest along Highway 9 in Santa Cruz
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In this edition of In the Public Interest, Christopher Neely looks at what’s different about efforts beginning Monday to clear the homeless encampment in Pogonip from how the City of Santa Cruz moved residents out of the San Lorenzo River Benchlands last fall.

This story was originally featured in this week’s In the Public Interest newsletter from Christopher Neely. Be first the first to hear about politics and policy news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Christopher’s email newsletter here.

The formal process of closing the Benchlands homeless encampment and relocating roughly 240 houseless Santa Cruzans last year began with a very public heads-up. City Manager Matt Huffaker announced the city’s plans to shut down the Benchlands during an April city council meeting, a full three months ahead of the planned start.

Aside from the regular updates, public discussion and debates, the issue even became a staple on the local campaign trail in the fall general election. The encampment ultimately closed in November, and regardless of anyone’s position on the issue, that it happened in a public way is difficult to argue against.

How widely the city broadcast its moves to clear the Benchlands stands in sharp contrast to how the public found out about the plans to sweep the encampments in Sycamore Grove, which began two weeks ago, and Pogonip, which begins Monday in a phased approach and will extend at least through June.

With an estimated 100 or more people living in the two adjacent camps, the clearing of Sycamore Grove and Pogonip represents the largest effort to relocate houseless Santa Cruzans since the Benchlands. But it is happening in a quieter way.

The first public word of the city’s effort to clear the encampments came only two weeks ago, during a May 9 city council meeting. The plan was buried in a request that city council approve a $250,000 contract to clear trash at Pogonip. The contract approval itself was clumped with a list of other items the city council typically approves with a single, sweeping vote, known as a consent agenda. The city council might not have discussed the encampment sweep at all if Councilmember Sandy Brown didn’t request it be set aside for a separate, individual discussion and vote.

“This really is an important item that is a bit misrepresented in the title. The contract is to remove debris, but nothing is said here about the people,” Brown told city staff. “We know that 80-100 people, you projected, are in that space. If that’s the intention [to move people] then that needs to be made clear.”

In this installment of In the Public Interest, Lookout politics and policy correspondent Christopher Neely examines what...

Procedurally, there is nothing incorrect with how city staff is handling the Sycamore Grove and Pogonip sweeps. Rather, it’s a notable shift in how the city is involving the public in its decision-making process around clearing large encampments.

City staff only carries out policy set by the city council. When the city council passed the camping ban in 2021 and the three-year Homelessness Response Action Plan in March of last year, Santa Cruz’s elected leaders empowered the city manager and city staff to make the call on when to clear a homeless encampment. Mayor Fred Keeley says he’s comfortable with city staff making these calls as long as it abides with policy.

“However, if the city council felt — if I felt — based on facts and evidence on the ground, that the city was clearing the camp in a way that was inconsistent with our policy, I would not hesitate 5 seconds to step in,” Keeley told me.

a homeless encampment in the forest along Highway 9 in Santa Cruz
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As the city begins to flush out Pogonip and Sycamore Grove, motivated largely by pollution and fire risk in the heavily wooded area in the coming summer months, history says only a minority of the people evicted from the camps will voluntarily enter the city’s established system and accept shelter. The lack of discussion over the sweeps pairs with a general uncertainty over where the people still living outside will next attempt to set up their lives.

After the Benchlands clearing, the city estimated that roughly 30% of the people volunteered to move into a shelter. The other 70%, many who said they lost trust in the service workers and formal shelters, dispersed elsewhere. Back then, many service providers and city officials believed that elsewhere, most often, meant Pogonip and Sycamore Grove.

Evan Morrison, who runs the homeless resource service Free Guide, says those who don’t accept shelter this time won’t simply disappear.

“It’s a basic question of, what next?” Morrison said. “These folks are not going away. If you want to do this clearout, then what are we going to do next for these folks that actually helps them?”

I asked Keeley, Councilmembers Sonja Brunner and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, and the city’s homelessness response coordinator, Larry Imwalle, where they thought people would go after Pogonip. Brunner and Kalantari-Johnson said they don’t know and will wait and see. Keeley believes this latest encampment breakup will lead to people dispersing across the city, rather than congregating in one main area. However, if the people migrating out of Pogonip do congregate somewhere, Imwalle says the Coral Street area could be the initial preference, as the Housing Matters campus and services are close by.

“I think the city’s goal here is to see that there is no reestablishment of an unsanctioned camp in the city,” Keeley said. “The city is very much opposed to unsanctioned camps.”

Huffaker did not respond to emails I sent him early last week. However, if Pogonip and Sycamore Grove are signals of how the city plans to handle encampment clearouts into the future, citizens who wish to stay engaged on these issues would be wise to pay attention to the minutiae of city council business, such as the consent agendas and contract approvals, moving forward. I certainly will.

Of Note

The Loch Lomond reservoir in drier times in June 2022.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Water works: Building resilience in the regional water supply has become an urgent priority following the latest drought. A big part of building future resilience is aquifer storage and recovery — the process of collecting excess storm water and storing it in underground aquifers. The City of Santa Cruz’s efforts received a major endorsement from the federal government after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a $128 million grant to help Santa Cruz build its aquifer storage and recovery system.

Santa Cruz County’s civil grand jury is in focus for Christopher Neely in this edition of In the Public Interest, as he...

Grand jury, unleashed: The Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury released the first two reports of its 2022-23 term; the first focuses on the county’s protection against cyberthreats, and calls for greater leadership among the county and its four cities in boosting cybersecurity; the second is a review and general lauding of the county’s Collective of Results and Evidence-based Investment program, which aims to equitably distribute budget funds.

The Week Ahead

Shaping the housing bond, Part 2: Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley made pursuit of a housing bond a foundation of his mayoral campaign last fall. Now, he’s letting the community drive the initiative, and the city is inviting the community to shape the bond across three meetings. The first meeting was last Thursday, when only 20 community members showed up. The next chance to have a say in this process is this Thursday, May 25, at 5:30 p.m. inside the Santa Cruz Police Department’s community room at 155 Center St.

the damaged section of West Cliff Drive just west of Woodrow Avenue on Santa Cruz's Westside
The damaged section of West Cliff Drive just west of Woodrow Avenue on Santa Cruz’s Westside.
(Will McCahill / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Budget season in full swing and a West Cliff review: The city of Santa Cruz will get its first public look at its proposed $97 million budget in a special meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Take a look for yourself here. On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz City Council will receive an update on the West Cliff Drive project, from infrastructure repairs to where the city is in turning the scenic drive into a one-way road.

Weekly News Diet

Local: Gail Newel, Santa Cruz County’s health officer who helped lead the region through the pandemic, is hanging up her boots after three decades. My colleague Max Chun has that story.

Books about dyslexia at a home
(Shelby Knowles / CalMatters)

State: Late last year, I learned through a very just OK podcast (though the first couple episodes are great) about the decadeslong battle over how schools teach children to read. It appears that debate is rearing its head in California, as the state seeks to institutionalize dyslexia screenings for its students. (Joe Hong for CalMatters)

National: The Chronicles of Sen. Dianne Feinstein carry major political implications nationally, but how do voters in San Francisco, where the trailblazer was once mayor, feel? Well, as Thomas Fuller reports for the New York Times, it’s complicated.

One Great Read


Martin Scorsese Has No More Time, by Mike Fleming Jr. for Deadline

The actual title of this article, “Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio & Robert De Niro on How They Found The Emotional Handle for Their Cannes Epic ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’” is a mouthful and misses the article’s own emotional handle. Scorsese, the auteur who has given us some of the greatest films of the past 50 years, is 80 years old, and in this article he reflects on the reality that his time is running out. I won’t spoil any of it here, but Scorsese at one point references a quote from one of his idols, Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, on the tension between growing old and the unending drive to perfect an art form. Enjoy.

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