Let’s applaud Santa Cruz city leaders for finally tackling homelessness

Santa Cruz police and other officials began the process of clearing the Benchlands homeless encampment Tuesday
Santa Cruz police and other officials began the process of clearing the Benchlands homeless encampment last Tuesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The City of Santa Cruz has finally adopted a real plan to address homelessness, which is a change from past practice. The city has a three-year plan to help transition people into housing and clear city streets and parks of encampments. Mike Rotkin, longtime mayor of Santa Cruz, wants us to give our city leaders credit for trying to tackle this longtime issue. He also wants us to use our votes to fund city taxes that fight homelessness, he writes.

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Homeless camping is among the most intractable issues in the city of Santa Cruz.

Mike Rotkin

Despite extensive city attempts across the past few decades to resolve it, things have only gotten worse. But recent initiatives by the city — including a three-year plan to address homeless camping and transition people to more viable housing options — are beginning to change that trend for the better.

Thanks to a more organized and strategic effort, new state funds, and new city staff working full time on homeless issues, the city has begun to make some significant headway in addressing homeless camping. One of the big efforts is that the city has begun enforcing a general ban on camping on city streets, in parks, and on other public property. It’s a policy, which — time and again — the vast majority of Santa Cruz residents have supported.

But now, the city is no longer removing homeless campers and telling them that it is up to them — the homeless themselves — to find some other place to sleep. Instead, the city is creating housing options and directing homeless individuals to specific shelter programs.

For example, along the San Lorenzo River and its riparian corridor, the city has reduced random camping dramatically. Many of those campers initially moved to the sanctioned, but poorly managed, “Benchlands campground” (otherwise known as San Lorenzo Park), which formed during COVID-19 and is located along the San Lorenzo River between Water Street and Soquel Avenue.

And now, as a variety of alternatives for homeless campers is emerging and being created, the community/city is gradually reclaiming the Benchlands as a city park. In stages that will take up to a month or two to complete, the city is offering the approximately 350 homeless people living in the Benchlands alternative places to sleep.

Some of those places provide rehabilitation programs and support services for problems with drugs, alcohol or mental health issues, while other options include smaller, managed indoor shelters and outdoor managed campgrounds. All offer shuttles to services that are essential in helping our homeless population in stabilizing their lives. Of course, a permanent solution to the homeless crisis will depend upon the construction of a great deal more affordable housing in the community, but temporary, well-managed camping alternatives are not an insignificant advance in the struggle to address this difficult issue.

To gain perspective on both the challenges and successes of the city on homeless camping, we can look at how other small- to mid-sized cities address the issue, perhaps especially those that don’t appear to have a comparable problem, such as Los Gatos and Carmel.

Many of our residents ask why we can’t be more like them.

To begin with, those cities operate in a different political universe. They have a far smaller proportion of politically conscious working-class voters, progressive activists and politically engaged university students keeping city officials accountable to legal policies and basic principles of civil rights.

Their police departments operate in local political cultures that accept tacit bans on homeless camping, and they make it clear that camping on their city streets, in parks and other public spaces will not be tolerated.

If you sit on a bench in Carmel and even vaguely look like you couldn’t afford to spend money in some local establishment, you will quickly be visited by a police officer asking what you are doing there.

With some combination of threats, actual arrests, and extra-legal chauffeured drives to the city border, the problem of homeless camping and other forms of what are considered unsavory activities, like panhandling or just making the town look “shabby,” are quickly dealt with. And it has to be noted that in these cities, the police are not acting on the basis of actual laws or even formal policies, which sets a dangerous precedent with respect to civil liberties.

It is in larger cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, or county seats like Santa Cruz, where mandated social services are delivered, that we most see the exploding problem of homeless camping. It is not that Santa Cruz has not tried to address the homeless problem. At one point in the 1980s, the city was spending more per capita to respond to homelessness than any other city in the United States.

Our city is still, according to my own research, within the top 20 cities in the U.S. with respect to that statistic.

But nothing the city has tried in the past has resolved or even reduced the problem. One police chief commented that enforcing the city’s old complaint-based camping ban was like playing “whack-a-mole” — as soon as they addressed the camping problem in one part of the city, it would simply pop up somewhere else.

The new three-year plan holds much promise for more comprehensively addressing the issue.

While it will take a few years to fully address this problem, we are finally moving in the right direction.

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Meanwhile, we should not be deterred that some of the homeless and their most outspoken advocates — including some who think the homeless should be free to camp wherever they wish — will be vociferous in their opposition to being forced to move to regulated sites where there are some rules about living conditions.

Commonsense rules — on garbage, stolen bicycle parts, fires, and the right to keep feral rats as pets — will make the camping sites safer and less of an issue for everyone in Santa Cruz. This also will help put an end to the scandal of the protection rackets that have many of the homeless paying criminal enforcers to keep them or their property safe, to say nothing of reducing the access of aggressive drug dealers preying on the addicts among the homeless living in the Benchlands.

In all of this, it is critical that, as the Benchlands are restored as a community park and environmental amenity, homeless campers should not be allowed to once again slip back into random camping along the river or in other parts of the community. We need to appreciate that this resolution of the problem rests on an ethical commitment to providing each camper who is removed from the Benchlands a real alternative, even if it is not the ideal alternative that might be desired by every homeless person.

Now, it will be up to the rest of us in the community to see that the city’s three-year plan is well funded and that our community does not fall back into the complacency and hopelessness that previously characterized our approach to this difficult issue. And we should actively appreciate our councilmembers and city staff for finding an ethical way to address this persistent problem.

Such appreciation might begin with support for increased city taxes, including Measure P, the transient occupancy tax, which is on the ballot this fall.

Mike Rotkin is a former five-time mayor of the City of Santa Cruz. He is a lecturer and the director of field studies in Merrill College at UCSC. He has lived in Santa Cruz for 53 years. His previous piece for Lookout, “Why does no one want to run for office in Santa Cruz? Future leaders are likely to lack experience,” appeared Aug. 30.

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