By Jessica A. York, Santa Cruz Sentinel
POSTED: 11/07/17, 7:59 PM PST| UPDATED: 1 DAY AGO
Homeless people are camped in the San Lorenzo Park benchlands from Water Street to the footbridge. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel file)
SANTA CRUZ >> The city Parks and Recreation Department is asking denizens of a recently expanded homeless encampment in San Lorenzo Park’s “benchlands” area to evacuate for about a nearly 24-hour stretch, beginning 9:30 a.m. Thursday.
The park’s temporary closure, which will not apply to paved pathways, is designed to allow city workers to cleanup and bring order to a space the city is tacitly endorsing for temporary homeless use. In the past month, the city has responded to the population growth by installing portable toilets, hand-washing stations and large metal trash bins.
Immediately prior, people at a nearby encampment in front of the downtown post office were rousted by police, as Police Chief Andy Mills simultaneously announced he would not enforce the city’s overnight camping ban unless subject to complaint, on private property or while other crimes were being committed.
“We just sort of push them back and forth between the levee, between downtown — that’s not, obviously, helping. We just sort of determined that’s not working — we need to have a change, here,” Bernal said. “But San Lorenzo Park, clearly, it’s not, from the city’s perspective or my perspective or even the police chief’s perspective or anyone’s perspective, an appropriate place to have an encampment over the long term.”
On Monday afternoon, concerns over the park’s use as a homeless encampment were raised by the public at the city Parks and Recreation Commission meeting. Coastal Watershed Council Executive Director Greg Pepping said he and others want city leaders to publicly explain who is in charge of the camp, when it will end and what is the comprehensive management plan for the situation. The commission directed Bernal to update the Santa Cruz City Council about the public concerns.
City officials have said they will not prevent campers from returning to the benchlands after the cleanup. City Parks and Recreation Director Mauro Garcia, however, said the encampment has its limits.
“We’re setting up an area that is not infinite. If we start approaching the limits of that area, we’ll have to restrategize with the leadership of the city,” Garcia said. “There’s nothing official, but we anticipate by mid-December the shelters will be available and the rains will come.”
Thursday’s San Lorenzo Park closure and cleanup will be multifold in its purpose, said Parks and Recreation Director Mauro Garcia. City crews will clean up areas otherwise difficult to reach while the area is inhabited, a perimeter will be erected around the encampment and around 15-foot by 15-foot individual encampments sites inside. The plastic “snow fencing” border will cut in half the amount of space campers have been covering along the benchlands, and allow the city to better track how many people are inside and in need of services, Garcia said. The outer fencing is also designed to keep campers from littering in the nearby San Lorenzo River or trampling park vegetation, he said.
“There’s plenty of room within that area. They’re just so spread out, there’s a huge impact,” Garcia said of the benchlands. “That would hopefully allow people to still use the pump track, still allow people to use the disc golf course area. Right now, it’s pretty intimidating for people to get down into the benchlands, as things are spread out right now.”
CAMPING IN THE GULLY
As the sun set on Monday evening, dozens of men and women trickled over the footbridge stretching above the grassy park area, populated with more than 30 tents and a population reaching as high as 70 people on a given night, by Garcia’s count. A city notice posted on an orange and white striped sawhorse alerted campers to the upcoming temporary closure, which will run through Friday morning. Local homelessness issues activist Brent Adams, who manages the emergency Warming Center Program and was an early advocate for creating public homeless camping facilities, handed out donated jackets and blankets while discussing the closure. Adams then gathered a handful of remaining campers around him to ask them what their concerns and needs were. Answers varied from safety from theft to cleaner toilet facilities.
Campers will be offered plastic storage bins to have their possessions stored and watched over by city workers during the eviction, Garcia said. Conversely, items left untended in the benchlands will be disposed of, he said.
The Warming Center will welcome homeless people for the evening, opening at 10 p.m. Thursday at Calvary Episcopal Church, 532 Center St., with sleeping pads and soup provided, Adams said. Interested volunteers can sign up to help by emailing Adams at compassionman.