2023 storms lesson: Santa Cruz County needs a better, more inclusive emergency response plan

The encampment along the San Lorenzo River benchlands flooded Monday
The Benchlands flooded and left many unhoused in precarious circumstances in 2021. The author thinks we need to learn from past mistakes.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Community organizer and former Santa Cruz mayoral candidate Joy Schendledecker sees a glaring problem with our community’s emergency response system. It is inadequate and does not, she writes, “include anyone explicitly representing the unhoused, non-English-speaking, elder or disabled communities.” She challenges our officials to do better, to learn from past mistakes, and to work more collectively and transparently to help those most in need. All of us, she insists, might one day need these services.

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This current round of storms has highlighted something startling about our Santa Cruz County community: We don’t have adequate emergency response plans for people who live outside and/or with access and functional needs (AFN).

This lack of planning is a form of neglect of community members most disproportionately affected by emergencies and is a result of decades of discrimination and neoliberal policies.

Here’s one telling sign: Our county-led Emergency Management Council doesn’t include anyone explicitly representing the unhoused, non-English-speaking, elder or disabled communities. That is a problem.

In contrast, the Monterey County Operational Area Disaster Council includes a member from the Monterey County Commission on Disabilities. That is a step we need to take, particularly since emergency planning for those with AFN has been federally mandated since 2016.

California is quite clear about whom we need to watch out for in an emergency.

They include those who: have physical, intellectual, developmental and mental health-related disabilities, are blind or visually impaired, are deaf or hearing-impaired, have mobility impairments and injuries, suffer chronic conditions, are older, pregnant or infants and children. The state also notes some people are economically or transportation disadvantaged, while others speak little or no English. In other words: most of us.

In addition, we are all touched by trauma in one way or another, whether it’s complex trauma from adverse childhood experiences, a personal traumatic event or living through the collective trauma of a disaster. Emergency planning and response that is inclusive and trauma-informed is, therefore, vital.

We are seeing these inadequacies play out most visibly during this current disaster with unhoused people sheltering in doorways, parking garages and risky wildland areas. Many other people with access and functional needs are out of sight and largely unrepresented in local governance.

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The worst part is, we are doing this on repeat.

We saw it happen in December 2021, when an atmospheric river so strikingly affected the Benchlands that Santa Cruz made international news. While the reasons for people living there at that time were complex, I haven’t encountered a single person who argues that a flood plain is a good place for people living in tents to reside for any length of time, especially in the rainy season. I take issue with the way it was carried out, but am glad that this year, the Benchlands is emptied.

But, sadly, our county and city officials continue systemic neglect and criminalization of people who live outside.

Through the diligent work of Democratic Socialists of America members in Santa Cruz, we know that at the height of the storm, our shelters and safe parking programs were at capacity. There remain hundreds of people without access to resources or to safe, sanctioned spaces to reside.

Like last year, many have gone upriver to Sycamore Grove, which was underwater for the New Year, and into the Pogonip. In addition, Santa Cruz Cares organizer Reggie Meisler and unhoused residents have documented the city continuing to ticket and tow vehicles used as shelter during this series of storms, adding to the numbers of unsheltered residents.

Santa Cruz mayoral candidate Joy Schendledecker
Joy Schendledecker during her campaign for Santa Cruz mayor.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

City Manager Matt Huffaker and Homelessness Response Manager Larry Imwalle were both new to their jobs in December 2021, so I can cut them some slack, but County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios and Emergency Services Manager Paul Horvat have been in their roles for many years, with experience in multiple disasters.

Do city and county leaders actually think they did a great job for unhoused residents in 2021 and this year (not to mention the 2020 CZU fires, or a dozen other emergencies past)?

They must do better.

Our community has experienced a lack of consistency in official communications and responses. This is both frustrating and destabilizing. Advocates’ calls for the city and county to be more transparent, communicative, accountable and responsive are legitimate.

If criticisms from the community sometimes seem harsh, unfair or based on inaccurate information, it might be that we are cobbling together our facts as best we can, based on what we’re seeing and hearing in the community.

I hope those working within the system can see that community criticism comes from a place of love, deep frustration and careful political analysis. At the same time, our criticisms of systemic inadequacies can feel personal and cut deeply committed workers and volunteers to the core when they are trying their best in difficult circumstances.

Here’s what can be done:

When there are predictions for extreme weather, it should not take squeaky wheels to get emergency resources going for those with disabilities and AFN. We should have well-defined triggers based on forecasts and best practices. In the fortunate event that actual conditions don’t get that bad, standing up emergency response should be seen as good practice for the next, inevitable disaster — not a waste of time and money.

In my research for this piece, I found many excellent emergency planning guides from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. I also read something hopeful in the September 2022 Santa Cruz County Emergency Management Council meeting minutes: 1st District Community Representative Nancy Yellin reported on her ongoing work for the peer oversight work group, including recommendations to “adopt a ‘whole community’ strategy and ensure AFN community members’ needs are met during an event.”

Thank you, Nancy Yellin, and everyone else who works to create inclusive community safety — I know there are a lot of you!

Leaders should prioritize the disabled and AFN community by establishing and funding offices of access and functional needs and AFN stakeholder work groups at the city and county levels. I don’t think we need to throw a bunch of new money at this problem, but reallocate funding away from things like military equipment for policing.

Let’s use the lived experience of our diverse community, along with easily accessible resources, to develop our best practices. Let’s have more dialogue and cooperation between all levels of community and governance. When we design for accessibility and inclusivity, we all benefit.

Let’s build the true collective care and safety we all want and need, together.

Joy Schendledecker is a community organizer, mom and artist. She is the 2023 co-chair of Democratic Socialists of America, Santa Cruz, and is a co-organizer of Santa Cruz Cares and Sanitation for the People. She ran for mayor of Santa Cruz in 2022. She has lived in Santa Cruz with her family since 2015.

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