The closure of the Ross homeless camp has been delayed yet again by the Santa Cruz City Council. The council also formally threw out the idea of creating a new homeless camp by Depot Park. And to the relief of many residents, the council paused its search for new sites for homeless camps in city neighborhoods or parks. We break down what you need to know about the council’s Tuesday meeting in five minutes.
KARA MEYBERG GUZMAN: Welcome to Santa Cruz Local, where we watch our public institutions and hold power to account. I’m Kara Meyberg Guzman.
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The closure of the Ross homeless camp has been delayed yet again by the Santa Cruz City Council. At Tuesday night’s meeting, the council canceled the April 17 closure and declined to set a new date. The council also formally threw out the idea of creating a new homeless camp by Depot Park. And to the relief of many residents, the council paused its search for homeless camps in city neighborhoods or parks.
The question of how to handle the tent camp near Highway 1 and River Street has dominated city politics in the past few months. The council is trying to strike a balance between closing a camp that is littered with drug use and trash, while also trying not to get sued for kicking people out in a way that potentially violates the law.
On Monday, the Northern California ACLU chapter sent a letter to the city, implying a possible lawsuit if the city closes the Ross Camp without a clear alternative for the campers. That letter is posted on our website, SantaCruzLocal DOT org.
A separate lawsuit against the city was served on Tuesday by people living at the camp who disagree with the city’s plan to close it.
As I said earlier, there is no new date to close the Ross Camp. Instead, the council voted to clean up the Ross Camp and add security. Also, the city will create a safer layout for the camp to allow more space between tents, at the recommendation of the Santa Cruz fire chief.
The plan would require the Ross Camp to be emptied for a brief time, for crews to pull out trash and mark out tent placements.
The council on Tuesday night also agreed to create an expert panel on homelessness with help from leaders in mental health, drug and alcohol addiction and other fields. The panel is supposed to convene in May and offer some solutions next year.
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When I went down to the Ross Camp on Tuesday around noon, I saw at least a few dozen people there. Quite a few people were sleeping in makeshift tents that were packed together haphazardly. Food wrappers were strewn about. There were signs posted not to move the rat traps, and other signs warning about the dangers of injecting black tar heroin. The county public health officer recently said that campers use 300 to 600 needles each day.
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There have been five deaths at the Ross Camp since it opened in November. The most recent death was from this week, a young woman.
One number we don’t know is exactly how many people live there, though previous estimates have ranged from 100 to 200 campers. The city attempted to perform a census, but it was unsuccessful, since the numbers change by the hour.
I was told by one camper there, Jimmie Hoffman, that there’s tension at the camp between people who want to keep it clean and organized and few people who he called “junkies” who just don’t care. I asked him what he was going to do if and when the city closes the Ross Camp.
JIMMIE HOFFMAN: I’m probably going to go back towards the beach. We spread ourselves out down there. Things generally get better when we’re not that close together.
KMG: Hoffman grew up in Bonny Doon. Last year he lived at the previous tent camp along the San Lorenzo River Benchlands.
By mid-April, the city is on track to reopen the 1220 River Street camp, a managed, highly structured homeless camp in Harvey West. Hoffman says he’s unlikely to sign up for 1220 River Street camp because he prefers his freedom to living in a fenced camp with tight rules.
Councilmembers Donna Meyers and Cynthia Mathews and Mayor Martine Watkins wanted to close the Ross Camp by April 30. Their plan to was to offer people at the Ross Camp shelter beds elsewhere in the county, including the new 1220 River Street Camp, and offer hotel vouchers, as other cities like San Jose have done. They could not get enough support to pass their plan.
Vice Mayor Justin Cummings, who was a deciding vote, said he wanted to hear more from the ACLU about requirements to close the Ross Camp, and so he did not want to set a target date for the camp’s closure.
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For those of you who are joining us for the first time, Santa Cruz Local is a local news startup co-founded by Stephen Baxter and me, Kara Meyberg Guzman. We are gearing up for an official launch in a few months. You can learn more about who we are and what we’re doing on our website, santacruzlocal.org. You can find our episodes there or anywhere else you like to listen to podcasts. You can also sign up for our email newsletter on our website, and find out ways you can support us. Again, it’s santacruzlocal DOT org.
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Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the local chapter of the ACLU sent a letter to the city. It was the Northern California chapter of the ACLU, not the Santa Cruz County chapter.
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.