Beyond the Benchlands: Under lawsuit threat, Santa Cruz sets plan to clear homeless camp. What happens next?

The encampment along the San Lorenzo River on Wednesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz began clearing the Benchlands this week, but city leaders acknowledge that this could be a slow process depending on the number of shelter beds it can provide and the willingness of those in the encampment along the San Lorenzo River to relocate.

The never-ending game of chess between Santa Cruz officials and advocates for those living outside in its downtown corridor finally seemed headed for checkmate this week.

City leadership had made headway on its goal of creating more shelter opportunities for the county’s most vulnerable unhoused population — many facing extreme and unchecked mental health and substance use disorders (SUDs).

That made it possible for the city to announce plans to begin reclaiming San Lorenzo Park’s “Benchlands” zone from the tent campers who have been using it as base since the COVID-19 pandemic, and to begin transitioning them to shelter. That “phased” approach began Monday with the installment of fencing in the upper, uninhabited portion of the park.

Keith McHenry speaks Monday night to 40 onlookers at the Resource Center for Nonviolence.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Then later that night, homeless advocates swerved the game back toward the threat of a stalemate during a meeting at the Resource Center for Nonviolence on Ocean Street. There, they promised a lawsuit aimed at inducing another court-ordered injunction — much like the one that, though dismissed more than a year ago, has kept the Benchlands open for what many concerned community members and leaders call risky business.

“We will file as soon as the city makes the first move to remove people from the Benchlands,” Keith McHenry, head of the Santa Cruz Homeless Union, told Lookout on Tuesday. “Our strongest point will be that the shelters are already full and that means they are in violation of the Eight Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provision against cruel and unusual punishment.”

Santa Cruz’s unwanted place near the top of two rankings — of the state’s most unhoused citizens per capita and the country’s least affordable places to live and work — is well documented. And so is the discord between those trying to find common ground on solutions, such as the number of available shelter beds and number of individuals willing to accept them.

Some longtime civic leaders say the city’s plans for decentralizing the area’s most visceral elements of homelessness in downtown, in conjunction with the county, have been encouraging — and have shown key progress. But they’ve seen too many fits and starts over the years to go all-in with optimism, partly because, they say, it takes mutual cooperation for it to work.

“It was supposed to be July and now it’s pushing late into August — so I remain skeptical how quickly it will roll out,” five-term mayor Mike Rotkin, who has been in Santa Cruz since 1969, said of the plan. “But one problem is that many who have already been moved out of the Benchlands recently have come back because they haven’t liked being somewhere else that had rules.

“If they’re honest about it, they’ll tell you, ‘I can’t get up at night and meet my drug connection or I can’t store a thousand bike wheels.’ They didn’t like it there because it had rules.”

A source who checks in on the area daily said they had witnessed a spate of fentanyl-related overdoses recently. The Santa Cruz County Sheriffs Office’s forensic pathologist, Stephany Fiore, confirmed Wednesday that there have been six overdose deaths from the Benchlands since early July. “It seems to average about one per week,” she said.

Time is of the essence, observers worry. There is a clear need not just to save lives, but make up for housing capacity shortages that continue to worsen.

New fencing in the Benchlands area Wednesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’s such a heavy lift for the city. They’re making good progress on one hand, starting to chunk out spaces for people to go. The county is staffing up to help,” said two-time mayor and affordable-housing advocate Don Lane. “My biggest concern is the clock.”

* * *

Technically, the Benchlands could’ve been shut down a year ago. That’s when U.S. District Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen removed the original injunction in July 2021.

But the city — which was transitioning to new leadership in key roles (Matt Huffaker, city manager; Bernie Escalante, police chief; Larry Imwalle, homelessness response manager) — didn’t rush into a new plan. Its implementation began earlier this year with active disbursement of those camping along the banks of the San Lorenzo River — many relocating to the Benchlands.

City leaders say conditions in the unmanaged Benchlands encampment — confirmed by Fiore’s data — pose a significant public health concern. Therefore, they believe, they are on solid legal ground.

“The list of public health, safety, welfare and environmental concerns is long, and (we) feel strongly the only way to address these concerns is to close the encampment,” Huffaker told Lookout. “We also believe that the thoughtful process that the city will be undertaking to close the camp in phases will go a long way with the court.”

That plan will involve a one-on-one dialogue between the city’s team of three outreach workers in the park and each individual camper, assessing the best option for their next move.

“When the city has shelter available, it will close a segment of the Benchlands that has fewer inhabitants than the number of spaces available,” Huffaker said. “This phased approach is aimed at providing alternative shelter options for all individuals within the camp.”

With relaxed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and vaccination now parts of the equation, the COVID-19 concerns that originally led to the court injunction are no longer relevant, the city believes.

“We are now in a very different situation with respect to COVID, which is why the court ultimately lifted its injunction,” Huffaker said.

City and county officials admit they are still working on adding shelter capacity to account for the tally of 225 people they estimate to be living in the Benchlands.

They hope to be weeks away from reopening the inside area of the Armory building in DeLaveaga Park in conjunction with the Salvation Army, which previously ran that operation for the county. That will add 60 spaces that don’t currently exist.

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“Shelter capacity is constantly changing, but our homelessness response team and city and county outreach workers are working with every person in the camp to develop a rehousing plan,” Huffaker said. “We are approaching (shelter) capacity, until additional planned shelter comes online at the Armory and other locations that we are exploring.”

* * *

McHenry estimated at Monday night’s meeting that as many as 500 live in the Benchlands. The meeting was attended by about 40 people, including an estimated dozen who live in the Benchlands — a number of whom spoke.

Although McHenry invited all top city officials, including councilmembers, to attend, none showed up. Mayoral hopeful Fred Keeley was on hand.

Several homeless individuals who spoke, both Monday and at a meeting the previous week, voiced concerns about the Armory’s distance from their workplaces and the treatment they’ve received from those who work at other managed shelter environments.

Rotkin pointed to the shelter at 1220 River St., a tent camp managed by the city dubbed a “transitional community camp,” as a sign that things can work. But capacity must ramp up to meet the demand, he said.

“We have a successful model there,” he said. “There are rules. The neighbors like the project. They have had meetings together with the residents. They even had a big lunch together. It’s a really nice model for how this can work. And they need about 20 or 30 of those things around the county.”

Not lost amid the ongoing human crisis for many is this environmental angle: the degradation of the San Lorenzo River watershed. Mayor Sonja Brunner addressed it recently in a letter to the public.

The encampment along the San Lorenzo River benchlands flooded Monday
The encampment along the San Lorenzo River flooded during a storm in December 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We must address the quality of life and park degradation over the past two-plus years, and allow for additional refurbishment of park amenities,” she wrote. “Restoring the Benchlands to park space free from encampments will reduce the potential for pollution of the river and allow riparian vegetation to grow back. Helping our residents will help our neighborhood and community.

“I look forward to seeing the river, the people and wildlife from this park flourish on a healthier path.”

Meanwhile, city leaders say it would be ideal to get all of the unhoused Benchlands denizens into shelter before winter again brings the threat of storms.

“There’s no set timetable but it would be ideally before the potential of winter rains,” Imwalle said. “It will be dictated by space available. If we have to hit the pause button because the space isn’t there, then we will.”

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