19 Feb 19
Santa Cruz Sentinel
SANTA CRUZ — The fate of a large, unsanctioned Santa Cruz homeless camp hangs in the balance.
The city and county of Santa Cruz recently approved a plan to close the camp behind the Gateway Plaza shopping center by March 15, planning to offer its estimated 150 residents beds at a range of new, renewed and expanded emergency shelters. But the Santa Cruz City Council voted to re-evaluate its approval at two upcoming meetings prior to the planned closure.
The encampment has raised public health and safety concerns from neighbors and officials due to the high concentration of homeless residents in a sprawl of tents and tarps spread across area roughly the size of a football field behind Gateway Plaza and adjacent to the San Lorenzo River levee — reminiscent of a similar encampment that formed nearby in San Lorenzo Park last year.
An estimated 150 homeless people are living in tents behind the Gateway Plaza Shopping Center. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel)
But so far, little has been heard from the camp residents themselves.
This week, some camp residents agreed to share their own views on the camp’s closure and whether they would be willing to move to an emergency shelter bed, if offered.
Homeless and living in a tent in the camp, 50-year-old Shannan Vudmaska said she has little interest in staying in an emergency shelter bed.
“I have a dog, I have belongings, I have friends,” Vudmaska said. “I’m supposed to give up all those things to go into a shelter, go into housing — and be back out here in two years.”
A longtime area resident whose son, she said, graduated from Scotts Valley High, Vudmaska said she has been homeless for six years following a domestic violence incident. She said she continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress and sees no clear path forward out of homelessness.
Only service animals are allowed at multiple area shelters, a definition it’s not clear Vudmaska’s pet dog could meet. At least some of her personal possessions could likely be stored at an existing Day and Night Storage Program, however.
Jeremy Floodman, 31, said he was one of the first to set up camp behind the Gateway Plaza late in October. He said he might be willing to try out a shelter bed if he is forced to pack up and leave, but he sees rules like an early nightly curfew as untennable for himself and most camp residents.
“These people, I don’t think they really care about if they have a bed for them,” Floodman said of his fellow camp residents. “We find beds ourselves. It’s more about having the freedom and a place to call our own — not fenced up and feeling like we’re locked up.”
Jeremy Floodman, 31, grew up in the Santa Cruz area and went to Soquel High. He presently lives in a large tent with two others at the homeless encampment behind Gateway Plaza. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel)
Enforced curfews at emergency shelters are necessary especially when the shelters are in residential neighborhoods as is the VFW shelter in Live Oak, according to Santa Cruz County spokesman Jason Hoppin.
“We’re a neighbor, and like everyone who lives within that neighborhood, we abide by certain norms,” Hoppin wrote in an email, responding to concerns raised by Vudmaska and other camp residents.
“That being said, we are not opposed to lower-barrier shelters if the setting and circumstances are appropriate,” he added, citing low-barrier models up and running in San Francisco and Sacramento that are showing signs of success. Those kinds of sheltering models will be explored moving forward, he said, but not before the planned camp closure.
Robin Flanigan, 52, was visiting her sister at the camp Wednesday. Herself homeless, Flanigan said she lives elsewhere in her van.
She said she is skeptical about the plan to open and expand shelters and wishes officials engaged in a more meaningful dialogue with camp residents before making decisions on their behalf.
“Do they send anybody down here? No they don’t. Do they really truly talk to any of us to see what will work for us? No they don’t,” she said. “So they just do what they feel is best for us, and meanwhile, it doesn’t solve anything.”
Robin Flanigan, 52, lives in her van while her sister is living in the Ross camp. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel)
Both the Santa Cruz police chief and Mayor Martine Watkins have reportedly visited the camp and spoken with residents. Health-related visits have been made multiple times per week, according to county officials, and an outreach effort about the new emergency shelter beds is planned this week, but it’s unclear exactly what that effort will look like.
The camp residents acknowledge there are problems with the status quo. Theft of personal possessions is said to be common. Its residents acknowledge that many there are addicted to drugs, and at least one person died at the camp of drug overdose in recent months.
“Do I think this (camp) is a good idea? No I don’t, because I don’t think being on public display is healthy for any of us,” Vudmaska said. “But I do think there should be an area that’s decriminalized so we can have some stability.”
Floodman said he, too, understands the public health and safety concerns raised by the camp, but he thinks those issues could be solved with better organization. “I know there are some problems that need to get fixed, but if we could get together — get a leader, a mayor, organize it a little bit and shake out the rough edges — I think it could work.”
Vudmaska added that she supports a day center model that would provide services such as showers, phone charging and storage. No day center service is currently available in Santa Cruz County, but such services may be included in a proposed all-day shelter for 100 people that officials hope to open July 1.
Another camp resident, who would only identify himself by his nickname, Popeye, shared a very different problem he’s experienced with shelter beds.
“They haven’t actually separated out the snorers,” he said. “I swear to god, I will sleep in the river — when you’re locked up and have people snoring, it’s like a hurricane.”
Closing the Santa Cruz homeless, according to Hoppin, remains important for public health and safety reasons even in the face of resistance from its homeless residents. “Providing safe alternatives to encampments is the best option for both homeless individuals and the community,” he said in an email.
But Flanigan, and others, don’t think the emergency shelter beds will be used by many of the camp’s residents. So what happens if the camp is closed March 15?
“We’ll go to the next place,” she said. “Just like we always have.”