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OPEN LETTER TO THE SANTA CRUZ COMMUNITY—ON HOMELESSNESS

From City Manager Martín Bernal

Post Date:03/25/2019 4:30 PM

For our residents and visitors to Santa Cruz, the homeless encampment at the Highway 1 and 9 intersection is nearly unmissable. Growing from a handful of scattered tents last fall, by late December the encampment had nearly reached its current size. Our community has shared concerns about the encampment, its effects on nearby residents, local businesses, the environment and the commuters and recreators traveling along the San Lorenzo Riverwalk.  In response, homelessness, and specifically how to address this unsanctioned encampment, has been the topic of many recent policy discussions at City Council meetings.

Given the City’s rapidly evolving response to the encampment, I understand the confusion about the encampment’s current status and what is being done to address the conditions there—as well as impacts on the greater community. We offer this letter to the community to provide a summary of current Council-directed activities, with the intent to provide regular updates on actions and plans with you.  

The Gateway Encampment (Camp Ross as described by some) poses significant public health and safety concerns.  In addition to ongoing risk of fire and general public safety challenges, the health conditions are very, very poor and the County’s Public Health Official has recommended the encampment’s immediate closure due to the risk of communicable disease and continued pest infestation. The City recognizes and supports the real urgency to close the encampment for the safety of all.

However, although the health and safety concerns are well documented, the City can't simply close down the encampment as has been done with others in the past.  There are new legal rules that require the City to take several steps before the closure of the encampment can occur.  The new rules arise from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case, Martin v. Boise, which requires a municipality to have low-barrier shelter available for displaced encampment sleepers in order to legally close the encampment. 

With this change in the law, the City has to identify alternatives for those sleeping in the encampment. Our current best estimate is that there are 100 or fewer people sleeping there at night—although the daytime population can swell to 150-200.  We believe that alternatives for this number of people can be met with the opening of two programs.

The first is a temporary managed homeless camp at 1220 River Street, the site of last year’s River Street Camp. Opening on April 17, 2019, operated by the Salvation Army, and funded with State homeless grants, this program will provide shelter for 60 people. The program will be “bus in/out” and will be staffed and managed.  Basic hygiene services will be offered.  The program will have safety standards, behavioral expectations including no drug use, and security onsite.

With that program in the works, the City needed to find space for 40-50 more sleepers—so that the Gateway Encampment can be legally and effectively closed.  After consideration of potential sites at the March 12 and March 19 City Council meetings, the City Council selected the temporary use of Parking Lot 24, which is north of Depot Park and accessed from Washington Street.

This Lot 24 Program will be a "Safe Sleeping and Storage Program"—also called a "dusk to dawn" program, where sleepers are allowed to enter into an enclosed, monitored space at a determined time in the evening to sleep for the night.  Each morning, any tents or sleeping equipment will be taken down and the sleepers will vacate the site for the day. There will be storage onsite for the sleeping equipment and the site will have basic hygiene resources (restrooms and handwashing stations).  The program will have safety standards, behavioral expectations including no drug use, and security onsite. This program has been authorized by the City Council to operate for 30 days, with the possibility of 30-day extensions approved by the City Council.

The current deadline is April 17 to have both the 1220 River Street and the Lot 24 programs available to open.  The Encampment closure process will likely take a week—beginning days before April 17, with the final close out on the 17th or 18th.  Thereafter, the City will need weeks to clean and restore the vacated Gateway Encampment site.

While this planning work is going on, the City and County of Santa Cruz staff continue to provide hygiene (restrooms, handwashing stations, public health checks and resources, and public safety (fire and police) response and interventions.  Staff are working this week with the encampment sleepers to establish a safer site footprint and tent configurations.

The Gateway Encampment continues to pose a significant challenge for all in our community and we are working as quickly as we can, within the new legal operating environment, to resolve the unsafe conditions. 

Thank you for your engagement and understanding as the City works through this challenge.  As I stated at the outset, we will provide ongoing updates.

Martín

 

 

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