Santa Cruz Is Closing Its Outdoor Homeless Camp

Nov 15, 2018

The City of Santa Cruz’s plan to house the homeless this winter didn’t work out. Now, it’s shutting down the outdoor River Street Homeless Camp. Those who live there are trying to figure out where to go.

Dawnell Hunsaker has lived at River Street Camp for about six months. She unzips the front door of her tent. Inside, she has a cot and some personal belongings.

“It looks like a bedroom. It looks like my bedroom would be,” Hunsaker says.

Her tent is one of about 50 at the River Street Homeless Camp. The camp is located in a dirt lot near The Tannery Arts Center on River Street. It’s completely enclosed by a metal fence. Once-bright prayer flags hanging above the entrance have faded.

The City of Santa Cruz opened the temporary camp in March. Initially, the camp cost around $90,000 a month. Santa Cruz County’s Homeless Action Partnership helped fund the camp later on, at around $75,000 a month. The Partnership ultimately made the decision to close the camp. It will shut down by the end of November.

“I’m sad. I'm very sad and I'm scared because this was safety. I've had lots of things happen out there that are unsafe for females, especially in my age range,” says Hunsaker.

Hunsaker, 47, says before here, she was living in a tent, sometimes on the streets and sometimes in the forest.

“I've had my tent blown up, caught on fire. Everything I owned, it was set on fire,” Hunsaker says.

River Street Program Manager Adam Carothers says many campers have expressed fear.

“People are anxious, they're nervous, some people are terrified,” says Carothers.

Carothers says River Street Camp drew homeless people who don’t normally stay in shelters. The camp had looser rules. People could stay 24/7, providing some stability, and campers also got their own tents, providing some privacy. They could bring pets and get jobs to help run the shelter.  

The camp also provided supportive services. It helped 23 homeless people move on to more permanent situations, from sober living programs to transitional housing.

“I really hope that people nationwide, statewide, you know, take this as a positive example that this is a good model,” says Carothers.

But the outdoor camp can’t survive the winter. Santa Cruz had planned to replace it with another temporary shelter by now, an indoor one that followed the same model. It was all part of a three-part plan that included two temporary shelters and then a permanent, year-round one. But the city says the second shelter hasn’t materialized yet because of community opposition over its location.  

Susie O’Hara works for the city and helped set-up River Street Camp.  She has been trying to secure a second site.

“We hear from just about everybody that there has to be a solution and that we have to come to that eventually. But when you get to the conversation about where that solution should be sited, we do run into challenges,” O’ Hara says.

Without a location for an indoor shelter, the city is recommending the Salvation Army-run Winter Shelter Program at the VFW in Live Oak. It’s an overnight-only shelter program that begins November 15. Doors open daily around 5:30 in the evening and everyone has to be out by 7:30 the next morning.

The VFW offers 60 beds; it’s enough space to house everyone at River Street Camp. But resident Dawnell Hunsaker says it’s not easy to pack up and leave every morning. She says she probably won’t go.

“That's a daily thing. You've got to show up at a certain time. Whoa, that's not this. I have no plan. I have nowhere to go, I have nowhere to go. So I'm back to the square one,” Hunsaker says.

Although the city didn’t establish an indoor shelter this winter, it hasn’t given up on that idea. It’s still working to find a location as well as another location for a permanent, year-round shelter.

Early next year, the state is expected to allocate over $10 million to Santa Cruz County’s Homeless Action Partnership to address the needs of the homeless community. The City of Santa Cruz is hoping some of that money can go toward a permanent shelter.