Lookout Update: Phase 1 of Benchlands clearing underway; phase 2 clearing set for Monday

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

The much-delayed clearing of the Benchlands began on Monday, with phase one tackling the area closest to the Water Street bridge and next to the county building. The city hopes to finish clearing the park before winter.

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After two separate delays, one in July and one in August, the clearing of the Benchlands homeless encampment on the east side of the San Lorenzo River from downtown Santa Cruz officially commenced on Monday.

The area included in phase 1 is the part of the encampment closest to the Water Street bridge, adjacent to the county building, and is considered one of the smaller zones. The city estimates that 20 people lived in this area.

The city is continuing to offer Benchlands residents a shelter option and transportation to that shelter prior to their eviction, city Homelessness Response Manager Larry Imwalle said.

“The city outreach staff that’s been working the Benchlands is continuing to engage folks and gauge their interest in the shelter option up at the armory building,” he said, adding that four residents had opted for that shelter on Monday and two on Tuesday. “We had transportation available yesterday and again today.”

Imwalle said that the other approximately 14 residents in the phase 1 area still must leave the Benchlands, though they are on their own once they do. He added that the number of phases — currently expected to be nine or 10, with each phase clearing one zone — could change as the project progresses.

“It’s going to be determined based on the availability of shelter capacity, so making sure that we have more shelter space available than we have people in a particular zone,” he said. “While we have nine or 10 zones now, that could be a little bit fluid based on the circumstances.”

Imwalle admitted that there isn’t a clear timeline for the completion of the clearing, but there is a preferred scenario.

“I think it’s in the best interest of everybody if we’re able to have this completed before winter,” he said. “We would not want to have the risk of people continuing to be in the park when there’s potential flood risk.”

But, of course, there are no guarantees.

“We are in a process where we have shelter capacity that’s allowing us to get into this weekly process, so we’re going to have to assess that on an ongoing basis,” Imwalle said.