We often talk about “the unhoused” in Santa Cruz County, but we rarely talk to them. Here, in video clips, Lookout’s Jody K. Biehl and Kevin Painchaud take you to the Benchlands, Santa Cruz’s largest homeless encampment — a place of ongoing controversy as the city plans its closure — and hear from five people living there. If you haven’t walked the Benchlands, this is your opportunity. As part of our interviews, we asked Benchlands residents what they want you — the public — to know about them and their lives.
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In Santa Cruz County, we often talk about the homeless, the unhoused, people without homes.
But rarely do we talk to them.
They frighten us. They’re often dirty, unstable, drug-addicted, mentally ill. An unknown, terrifying other.
We don’t know what to say. How to approach. How to help or find a connection to the shared humanity we know is there, beneath it all.
Some of us are angry. We are tired of seeing people sprawled out in our doorways, in front of downtown Santa Cruz businesses, along the San Lorenzo River, gobbling up an unequal amount of city services, dirtying our waterways, selling drugs and — sometimes — unwittingly spreading disease.
We want the problem to stop — for the city, the county, someone to “fix” it. We are sick of being afraid. Angry we have to be so angry.
Two weeks ago, we — Lookout Community Voices editor Jody K. Biehl and Lookout videographer Kevin Painchaud — spent time in the Benchlands, the mile-long series of tents, lean-tos and tarps hung across trees along the San Lorenzo River, between Water Street and Soquel Avenue, that houses 250-300 people (some say 500) and is Santa Cruz’s largest homeless encampment. It runs just behind the courthouse and government buildings on Ocean Street.
We had one purpose: to talk to residents about their lives and how they came to live in the Benchlands.
That’s part of the mission at Community Voices: to bring voices we seldom hear into the community dialogue. It’s also part of Lookout’s continuing coverage of the unhoused. We’ve recorded and edited five stories for you here.
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Come with us.
If you haven’t been inside the Benchlands, this is your opportunity. As part of our interviews, we asked people who live in the Benchlands what they want you — the public — to know about them and their lives.
You’ll meet Lawrence “Blue” McGregor, a transgender Iraq War veteran who has been homeless since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed his grandmother’s home. And Jazmine, homeless since December, after a long hospital stay left her unable to pay her rent. She hates all the dirt, her inability to stay clean, and often sits along the river, pretending she is elsewhere and trying to figure out how to get out. She asked us not to include her last name. And Billy Lowery, incarcerated for decades, grateful to be “outside” after years locked away, but lacking in skills, money or any idea what to do with his remaining years.
Homelessness is the problem of our age.
Along with climate change, it’s the biggest unsolved issue in our city, county and state. No matter how much money we seem to throw at it (California allocated $12 billion in 2021), we can’t manage to solve it. We simply can’t figure out how to offer everyone who needs it a safe place to live and start over.
In Santa Cruz, the 2022 point-in-time count found 2,299 people without homes, a 6% increase since the previous count, three years earlier. It also found an increase of people with substance abuse disorders, mental illness and a 120% increase (151 to 332) in homeless veterans since 2019.
The Benchlands has existed about three years — since just before COVID-19 hit — and has stayed open for a tangle of complex reasons, but mostly because (despite efforts) the city doesn’t have enough beds or homes or answers on how to help those who live there.
Last week, the city began moving forward with plans to close the camp — which officials insist is a vector of disease and a haven for drugs and drug dealers — and “transition” its residents to shelters.
Santa Cruz began clearing the Benchlands this week, but city leaders acknowledge that this could be a slow process...
The people living in the Benchlands are fearful of leaving. They worry they will lose all their belongings and the fragile bit of stability they have. None believe closing the camp will get them any closer to having what most say openly they want: permanent housing.
The Santa Cruz Homeless Union — headed by Food Not Bombs founder Keith McHenry — has vowed to sue the city to stop the closure.
Here, we have put together five two- to five-minute clips from the sometimes hourlong interviews we did with Benchlands residents. Some of these people, and many others we interviewed, could not tell us coherent stories about themselves. We also could not verify much of what they told us.
But we value their perspective.
Some living in the camp are drug addicts in need of treatment and counseling. Several — like Billy — were recently released from jail or prison and are uncertain or have nowhere else to go.
They are part of our community. And they offer a glimpse of what can happen when luck, genetics, friendship and love turn sour and upend us.
These are their stories.
Lawrence “Blue” McGregor
Blue has been homeless since 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed his grandmother’s home. An Iraq War veteran, he is transgender and says he is tired of living in a tent and wants a house with a key where he can feel safe.
He broke down in tears twice during our interviews.
He loves to garden and meticulously tends a few rows of plants and herbs outside his tent. If the city closes the Benchlands, he will lose his garden. He says he has a Section 8 housing voucher, but the city has not been able to find him a place to live. About 65% of homeless people with housing vouchers are currently getting homes, according to county data.
Blue wants to stop feeling dirty all the time. He wants to take regular showers, have a key and “be normal” again.
Jazmine likes to make herself look “pretty” and often sits on the edge of the San Lorenzo River and tries to forget she is unhoused. Her partner, Kelly, collected wood and built her a perch — which looks like a bird’s nest — where she can sit in the branches above the river.
A college-educated massage therapist, she became homeless in December after a serious illness left her unable to pay her bills. Kelly is her caregiver, which means he can’t work, either, she told Lookout. Her illness cost them jobs, their home and car, and now they are burdened with medical bills from her long hospital stay.
She has a mother and a sister, whom she tells only “the good things” about her life. She’s looking for a way out of the Benchlands, a place she never expected to call home. She says she is shocked the American (and local) system takes such poor care of its people. She asked Lookout not to print her last name. She doesn’t want the stigma of homelessness to follow her forever.
Billy grew up in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood and spent 30 years incarcerated. He has a wife and four children who now live in Oklahoma, with whom he has sporadic contact. He would like a home and to have made other choices in his life.
He also says the American penal system does a poor job of readying those inside for life after release. He never learned to pay bills, balance money, save or plan. For 30 years, he had a set, rigid schedule, and upon release, he had nothing.
Now he is enjoying life “outside,” out of prison, but also in the fresh air. He says he used to work at a Santa Cruz car wash and would get another job if he could. Few places will hire felons and he is not sure where to look.
Nick grew up in Santa Cruz and has been homeless off and on since childhood, as his family struggled to pay rent. He said his father “was killed” when he was 10 and his stepmother “was murdered” when he was 12. His best friend’s father molested him for years.
He wants the public to know that many in the Benchlands and on the streets in Santa Cruz are not homeless by choice. They simply had back luck. He dreams of a home, a partner, a child.
He has stage 5 kidney disease and needs a transplant. Without it, he will die. He says if he had received medical care sooner, he might have been better off, but being homeless, it is hard to get services.
“Momma” Shannon Vudmaska
Known as “Momma” Shannon to many — particularly young women — in the Benchlands, Shannon is a slam poet, writer and mother of four kids, none of whom she sees often. She hopes to one day have them back in her life. She is a recovering addict and runs one of the unofficial food pantries in the Benchlands.
She has been homeless since age 25.
She spoke of losing clothes, pots and other precious items to thieves and complained that the city never gives residents warnings when police will close down camps. Her biggest fear is “dying out here.”