About 15 tents were set up at an unsanctioned homeless camp at Highway 1 and River Street in Santa Cruz on Nov. 12, 2019. (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local)

SANTA CRUZ >> City leaders on Tuesday scrambled to respond to an unsanctioned homeless camp that has cropped up again near Highway 1 and River Street. 

About 15 tents were pitched in a vacant lot by Gateway Plaza and the San Lorenzo River Tuesday afternoon — the same location of this year’s Ross Camp. A chain-link gate, locked for months, was open. On the fence, a set of rules: 

“1. Maintain organized space (Pee/Poo/Trash/Food in its place). 

2. No public drug use (do it in your own private space). 

3. No drama 

4. If you need help organizing your space let the camp leaders know so they can arrange for help.”

The local chapter of the California Homeless Union and the homeless service group Food Not Bombs said they organized the camp. The city of Santa Cruz owns part of the land. The rest is Caltrans property. 

A sign shares the values of camp organizers at a new homeless camp at River Street and Highway 1 in Santa Cruz on Nov. 12, 2019. (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local)

Behind the gate, at a check-in table, two volunteers signed people in and out and offered donated food. People could use two portable toilets and a handwashing station, paid for by Food Not Bombs.

The scene was in stark contrast to a homeless camp on the same site during this past winter and spring. There, several dozen people lived under tarps or tents for about six months. 

City leaders and many residents denounced that camp as a public health and safety hazard. Tents were cramped in close quarters. Drug use was rampant. Authorities feared fires because people were cooking and using heating equipment in tents. The Ross Camp was cleared by the city in May.

Charles Stange, 37, from Berkeley, shares how he keeps his tent, at left, dry in the rain at the Ross Camp in Santa Cruz on March 11, 2019. The city cleared the Ross Camp in May. (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local file)

Authorities have not cleared the new camp because the city’s protocol for clearing unsanctioned camps requires the city to have another place where people can go and have a legitimate reason for clearing the site. The council adopted this protocol earlier this year, in response to the federal court case Martin v. Boise. The court ruled that enforcement of a camping ban when there aren’t enough shelter beds is cruel and unusual punishment.  

Tuesday, city staffers tried to get people to leave the new unsanctioned camp by offering spots for campers at 1220 River St. and the Salvation Army shelter on Laurel Street.

The city is working as fast as possible to clear the unsanctioned camp, city spokesman Ralph Dimarucut said Tuesday. 

Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills said in an interview that the city won’t wait until the next council meeting to move forward with clearing the site.

Symbol of protest

Alicia Kuhl, president of the local chapter of the California Homeless Union, said the new camp appeared Sunday morning.

The camp is a symbol of protest, Kuhl said, with three reasons for establishment.

  • There will be no winter shelter this year at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in Live Oak.
  • City authorities promised campers at the old Ross Camp that there would be a place to go, but there were not sufficient options, Kuhl said. Campers were offered hotel vouchers and sites at other camps.
  • A homeless activist, Desiree Quintero, who lived at the Ross Camp, died last month when a tree fell on her in the Pogonip. Quintero’s allies have said she didn’t have anywhere decent to go after the Ross Camp closed. 

The Santa Cruz City Council unanimously voted Tuesday to work with the county to identify winter shelter locations.The council plans to consider revising the camping law at its Nov. 26 council meeting so the city “can address nuisance conditions on public property,” according to Councilmember Donna Meyers’ motion. 

Police Chief Mills said the city has standards for clearing campsites.

“It’s following those rules to make sure that there’s a place for them to go, and then there has to be a legitimate reason for us to move people,” Mills said. 

“So whether it becomes a spot where the Department of Parks and Recreation has plans for, and they need to get in there to spread the bark, I don’t know. But I can tell you this: That we’re going to continue to keep the same policies and move forward,” Mills said.

Activists support camp

Kuhl, the homeless union chapter president, requested at the council meeting Tuesday for the city to support the camp and provide a dumpster. 

Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs, said that if the city doesn’t offer a dumpster, his organization will rent one Wednesday. He added that Food Not Bombs has ordered a solar charging station and plans to rent a water tank. The group plans to set up a kitchen Wednesday morning, he wrote in an email to Santa Cruz Local. 

Camp resident Crystal Olsson said during public comment Tuesday, “I’m not really sure how to say this, but we want to show the city that we’re not little kids. We don’t need a ride in and out of camp. We’re not in jail. We just want to live and survive in a safe space.”

Kuhl, Quintero and McHenry’s Food Not Bombs were plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city this year regarding the closure of the Ross Camp. The case was dismissed in September. 

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In other news

Tuesday, the council considered a range of items. 

Affordable housing

Homelessness manager

  • The council voted 4-3 to create a new Homelessness Response Manager and delay the hire of a new Communications Manager. The staff had drafted a proposal that would fund both positions immediately, from a mix of the general fund and enterprise funds like water, wastewater, refuse and parking. That proposal would’ve saved about $49,000 in the general fund and increased spending in the enterprise funds, which are self-supporting. The council’s plan adds about $35,000 of spending to the general fund, said City Manager Martin Bernal. Vice Mayor Justin Cummings and Councilmembers Drew Glover, Chris Krohn and Sandy Brown voted for the plan. Mayor Martine Watkins and Councilmembers Cynthia Mathews and Donna Meyers voted against because they didn’t want to delay the hiring of a Communications Manager.

Drug decriminalization

  • The council voted unanimously to send a resolution on decriminalizing psychoactive plants and drugs to the city’s Public Safety Committee, made of Glover, Meyers and Krohn. The resolution would make the investigation or arrest of people who have, use or grow these drugs a low priority for city police.The committee will discuss this resolution at its next meeting Dec. 2. The item will return to the council at an upcoming meeting.

Water improvements

  • The council also voted unanimously to allow the water department to sell up to $30 million of water revenue bonds. A city consultant said that the water department would actually sell only $21.5 million of bonds, which would mean an interest of an additional $15 million. The bond money would pay for projects such as improvements to the Graham Hill treatment plant, a tank replacement and improvements to the Newell Creek pipeline. The bond money would have to be spent within three years of the sale.
  • The council unanimously approved an updated work plan for the city’s Water Supply Advisory Committee, The committee aims to improve the reliability of the city’s water supply. The city gets most of its water from the San Lorenzo River, streams and creeks. During major droughts, the city’s supply is unreliable. The council accepted the water commission’s proposed update, including an evaluation of potential new surface-water sources.
  • The council voted unanimously to adopt guidelines for the city’s use of green bonds to fund water infrastructure improvements. Green bonds are like regular municipal bonds, and have the same interest rates, but are meant for investors who want to support the environment.

Bail amounts

  • The council approved 5-2 a routine update to the city’s bail schedule. Councilmembers Drew Glover and Chris Krohn were the two no votes. They wanted the council to approve the bail schedule except for the fines for entering a condemned building and failure to appear in court. Glover said those fees disproportionately affect homeless people. City Attorney Tony Condotti said without a bail schedule, judges would have to dismiss cases. The council instead voted 4-3 for a study session to look at the impact of these fines on homeless and low-income people. The Public Safety Committee will discuss the scope of the study session at an upcoming meeting. Mayor Watkins and Councilmembers Donna Meyers and Cynthia Mathews voted against the study session.

Kara Meyberg Guzman is the CEO and co-founder of Santa Cruz Local. ​Prior to Santa Cruz Local, she served as the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s managing editor. She has a biology degree from Stanford University and lives in Santa Cruz.