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Federal Court Steps Into Santa Cruz Homeless Camp Controversy

Santa Cruz continues to struggle with how to manage a large homeless encampment at one of the city’s main entrances. The city’s plan to clean it up this week has been put on hold by a federal judge. KAZU News Director Krista Almanzan interviews KAZU Reporter Erika Mahoney who has been covering this story for months.   

Krista Almanzan (KA): First, just as a reminder for our listeners, where is this homeless camp and why is it a problem?

Erika Mahoney (EM): This homeless encampment is located along Highway 1, near River Street. Over a hundred tents are packed in a dirt lot behind a shopping center called Gateway Plaza. That’s why it’s called the Gateway Encampment. Some people call it Ross Camp.

It grew just before the holidays last year after Santa Cruz closed its city-run outdoor homeless camp. Gateway is not a city-run camp, but the city has put in hand-washing machines and trash cans.  Still, neighbors continue to report health and safety issues, like needles on the ground. 

The coroner’s office says four people have died in the encampment; one death due to underlying drug use. Toxicology reports are pending in the other deaths.  

Santa Cruz Fire Chief Jason Hajduk says there have been at least three fires. He’s worried about a serious fire now that we’re approaching warmer and drier months.

“First and foremost, we have a large group of people in a small space so that any fire that occurs is going to impact more than one individual or one group of people within that space.” Hajduk says.  

Hajduk adds he’s seen a number of things at the camp that could start fires like cooking devices, candles and lighters. And he says there are limited ways in and out of the encampment.

(KA): So the city’s plan was to relocate everyone this week to a new camp in the San Lorenzo Park Benchlands so that the city could clean up the Gateway Camp.  Then, the city was either going to let people move back to Gateway Camp or get them into other shelters.  Why is that plan not going to work?

(EM): Well, a federal judge has stepped in. He issued a temporary restraining order saying the city can’t remove anyone from the encampment or seize any personal property until the court rules on a lawsuit. This lawsuit was brought forth by a group of homeless people living at the Gateway Encampment. Food Not Bombs has also signed on to the lawsuit.   


(KA): So explain this lawsuit.

(EM): The lawsuit aims to prevent the closure of the encampment until the city provides enough indoor shelter space for the homeless in Santa Cruz. Precedent set by an earlier case called Martin vs. Boise says cities can’t punish people for sleeping on public property unless there’s an available indoor bed for them.  

That all connects to the potential closure of the Gateway encampment because if it’s disbanded, then some of the homeless people living there will disperse into the streets. Food Not Bombs Co-founder Keith McHenry believes they’ll end up facing the potential of harassment or tickets from police.  So, McHenry says without enough shelter beds, the camp can’t be forced to close.

“And so until that happens, they cannot have any enforcement action like an enforcement to shut down Ross Camp or to harass people that are living in the doorways and in the bushes and that they are now in a position where they have to really come up with the plans that we have been promoting now for over 30 years in this city,” says McHenry.

And by those plans, he means permanent indoor accommodations.

(KA): Does the City have enough shelter beds for those living at Gateway encampment?

(EM): Maybe.  The city is doing a census to determine how many people are living at the Gateway encampment. They’re collecting this information as people voluntarily transition to the San Lorenzo Park Benchlands; that’s where the new camp is. I visited it earlier this week. It’s located in a grassy field right behind the county government building. Green tents are set up inside a metal fence there.

So what are the next steps?

(EM): A hearing is set for tomorrow morning in the U.S. District Court in San Jose. According to Santa Cruz’s city attorney, there are likely two possible outcomes. The first would be the judge lifts that temporary restraining order against removing anyone or seizing personal property at the encampment. That would allow the city to continue on with its planned cleanup.

Or two, the judge continues the restraining order and sets another hearing to weigh more evidence, potentially restricting the city from closing the camp.      

Also in the meantime, the city says about 90 people have moved from the Gateway Encampment to the Benchlands.

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.
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