Phase 2 of Benchlands clearing done, but only one in three people leaving is moving into armory

Phase 2 of Santa Cruz's plan to clear the Benchlands homeless encampment took place Monday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Phase 2 of the City of Santa Cruz’s efforts to clear the Benchlands homeless encampment began and ended Monday, with about 50 individuals being forced out of the area east of the San Lorenzo River. Shelter space is limited as is, and there are at least seven more zones to be cleared. If shelter options run out, the city will have to pause the clearing process.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

One week after the official start of phase 1 of City of Santa Cruz’s efforts to clear the Benchlands homeless encampment, another 50 unhoused people were moved out of the area Monday in phase 2 of the process.

Of those 50, 15 opted to take shelter at the National Guard Armory in DeLaveaga Park, joining the six of about 20 Benchlands residents from phase 1. City Homelessness Response Manager Larry Imwalle said there were about 52 spaces left at the armory building, the shelter being offered to those leaving the encampment. Overall, early trends indicate that one in three Benchlands residents is accepting shelter at the armory.

Of course, 52 spaces is not close to enough shelter for the more than 200 Benchlands residents, even assuming that the one-in-three acceptance rate holds steady — and that’s been one of the issues involved in the closure: finding enough new shelter alternatives. Phase 3, slated to take place on Tuesday, Sept. 27, would see another 48 people leaving the Benchlands.

So where are those not opting for shelter at the armory going?

Some who have been moved out of already cleared areas have moved deeper into the encampment, causing other zones to grow in size, said Imwalle. The rest, he said, are on their own to figure out where to go. He added that the city is not keeping tabs on each Benchlands resident.

“We won’t be tracking individuals specifically, but more generally, we’re certainly staying aware of where new encampments may develop and what their impacts might be,” he said, adding that the city might have to identify places where former Benchlands residents congregate and ask them to move again.

While ideally more than one in three people would opt for shelter, Imwalle said, the city is seeking to execute two main goals.

“The camp has significant safety and health risks, so closing the camp to alleviate those issues and making it into a park that the community can use are the city’s main goals,” he said. “Of course, in the long term, we’re looking for better options for the unhoused population and to get more people in touch with necessary services, and the higher the number of people that access those, the more successful it will be.”

Given that the city anticipates nine to 10 phases necessary to complete the clearing, armory space could fill quickly.

Imwalle said that if shelter space runs out, the city will have to halt the effort temporarily.

“If we reach a point where we do not have additional shelter space to offer, then we will pause the closure process,” he said. “Our commitment is to make an option available to everyone who chooses to accept it, so that’ll be the decision point.”

Imwalle said the city is exploring multiple concurrent efforts to find housing options for people leaving the Benchlands.

“We’re in conversation with the county shelter system and looking at friends, families, along with vouchers that some folks have that can connect them with housing navigators,” he said. “We also have those kinds of mechanisms through the county’s encampment resolution grant. That program is working to help rehouse 65 persons through housing scholarships and housing navigation.”

Despite these efforts, one thing is clear: No shelter space means no more clearings, at least for the immediate future.

“We’re not going to close an area unless we have an option available to each person in that zone, and whether they elect to take up that offer is an individual decision,” Imwalle said. “But still, we will temporarily pause the process if we do not have options to offer.”