Tents in Sycamore Grove in May.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Opinion from Community Voices

The day the Santa Cruz homeless crisis knocked on my front door

In April, a homeless woman knocked on Sheila Carrillo’s door on the Westside of Santa Cruz. She was stunned, but then realized something else: She knew the woman. She gave her food and a shower and helped her get to a treatment center. But Carrillo wonders what will become of her and so many others who recently lost their homes when the city cleared out the Sycamore Grove encampment.

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In April, the homeless crisis I see on our streets and agonize about knocked on my front door.

It was midday and before me stood a frightened, bedraggled and apparently homeless woman.

“Please help me,” she begged. I was stunned. I recognized her.

I had known her and her family since she was a toddler. I knew her stepfather had sexually abused her and then inherited money and abandoned the family in poverty.

She had become an unstable teen mother, whose two children — now sweet but struggling adults — were on their own at a very young age. As she and her toddler had briefly lived in a cottage on my property, I had seen her often during that period, but I haven’t encountered her for decades. I am aware that in recent years, she’d married and lost custody of a third child.

I tenderly enfolded her as she gave herself to my arms, proffering a pained apology for the sudden intrusion on my household. My heart ached seeing her so downtrodden and despairing.

She’d been dropped off by her also-homeless, mentally ill, addict brother, who fled with the car she’d been using for shelter. She hadn’t eaten for days, hadn’t bathed for weeks.

After showering and eating very little — explaining that her stomach was unused to food — she shakily told me that after all these years of struggle, erratic behavior, lying and fantasizing, she’d been given an explanatory, but overwhelming, psychiatric diagnosis: bipolar schizoaffective disorder.

She also disclosed that she is an alcoholic.

She had recently been prescribed two “somewhat helpful” medications to address her diagnosis, but was out of them and panicky because she’d gotten no response from her case worker. (Later, we contacted her case worker’s supervisor, managed to get him on the phone, but saw no follow-through.) She told us of filling out forms, being placed on lists, and begging for supported detox to be told it would be months.

She had, in the past, sought help at Janus — a 45-year-old Santa Cruz substance abuse recovery center — but the agency, she warned, was often besieged with dozens in dire need. She suggested we take her there at 7 a.m. the next morning so she could be first in line.

Fortunately, it was a weekday, not a weekend, when Janus — like most social service agencies — is closed. (Remember not to have a crisis on the weekend.)

She’d had trouble falling asleep, and though difficult, we roused her early, and she was, indeed, first. Miraculously, Janus had a bed, and she met all its prerequisites: a bag of belongings, Medi-Cal, an assigned case worker, a prescription for medication.

No contact was allowed, but we were told that after the reputed hell of detox, she had been placed in a sober living home for mothers with children under 5 — a generous stretch as she had neither young children nor a child living with her.

I’ve since read that the average stay at Janus is three months. I worry for her future, but have heard she had a brief conversation with her mother and believes she will have a place to live.

Though in my 80s, I could identify with her.

I, too, had been a young mother with mental health issues, barely functional. I couldn’t help wondering what would have become of me if I hadn’t had a husband committed to taking care of his new family as well as financially secure parents.

Tents in Sycamore Grove in May.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Fortunately, in the months prior to her arrival, I had become increasingly engaged with the challenges of those living homeless on our streets and was more prepared than I might have been.

Inspired by friends who have long supported our houseless community and are members of Democratic Socialists of America, I’d been participating with a group dubbed “Love Boat,” delivering food, tents, first aid/hygiene supplies where needed.

I’d thus become familiar with the sprawling homeless camps in an area fronting Highway 9 called Sycamore Grove, where perhaps 100 of the estimated 2,000 unhoused in Santa Cruz County had taken shelter since the city closed the Benchlands homeless encampment in November 2022.

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My weekly visits garnered endearing and sometimes unnerving snapshots of the lives of the unhoused. Conversations began to transform my previous unease into growing compassion and curiosity. Indelible images reside in my heart and mind:

A tent flap unzipping to reveal an older man lying on an inflated wall-to-wall air mattress, his cat snuggled on his legs.

A cord stretching between trees, clothes hanging to dry, much like I’d used when camping.

A woman sweeping the dirt around her tent, tidying up, recalling my years in Mexico.

A man, unable to put weight on a badly injured foot, lurching out of his tent at the announcement of lunch.

A camp resident with his back outrageously curved in a C formation. “From a botched surgery,” he told me. “They need to break it and redo it.”

A 5-gallon glass water bottle hooked onto a biker’s handlebars as he headed down Highway 9 to fill it.

A circle of five or six Spanish speakers making their morning coffee.

Sheila Carrillo spent months delivering food to unhoused people in Sycamore Grove.
Sheila Carrillo spent months delivering food to unhoused people in Sycamore Grove.
(Via Sheila Carrillo)

I began asking myself, what might bring greater ease, comfort and safety to these struggling campers — while protecting our fragile environment — until we have adequate housing solutions?

My thoughts: port-a-potties, trash bins, mobile showers and health care units serving encampments, like the ones that operate in Santa Clara County, would help. In April, I had written a commentary imploring public officials to address the sad plight of our unhoused community with mercy. I saw the Sycamore Grove encampment as an opportunity to explore what that might entail and began writing this commentary.

Tragically, as I was writing, the City of Santa Cruz posted notices on trees outlining the encampment stating that the area would be cleared out in phases, beginning May 22.

Over a two-week period, this area was “swept.” The residents — many of whom had been unhoused on the muddy slopes through this winter’s freezing gales and deluges without an offer of 24-hour shelter for them and their pets, or safe storage for their belongings — again lost their homes.

Shortly after the area was cleared out, I drove up and walked around the trampled hillside, dotted with trash and broken household items, with a deep sense of loss and emptiness.

Where did these people wind up? What has happened to them, their belongings, their pets, their connection, their spirits?

And what will become of the dear daughter of my old friend?

Sheila Carrillo was born in New York in 1942 to a first-generation Jewish immigrant family. With the exception of three years spent in La Paz, Baja California, she has lived in California since she was 4. In 1972, she and her family moved to Santa Cruz, where she served as a bilingual multicultural event organizer, including co-producing the annual countywide Peace Day (1985-95). She initiated innovative public and private school programs and established diversity training for San Lorenzo Valley High School ninth graders. A retired educator, she engages in progressive politics through advocacy and writing. In 2016, she co-founded the Muslim Solidarity Group.