Edit: As of January 8, 2023, the Freight Building at Depot Park opened as an emergency shelter operated by the Santa Cruz Free Guide. It will be operational 8pm-8am through Thursday, January 12, at which point it is yet unclear where shelter seekers will be forced to go…
An empty Civic Auditorium after the closure of the emergency shelter
Despite five inches of rain forecast over the next three days, the City of Santa Cruz decided to close the temporary emergency shelter at the Civic Auditorium on Saturday, January 7th. Shelter workers and volunteers trained as “Community Emergency Response Team” (CERT) passed out burritos and paper resource directories as they shuffled people out of the building, closing just as another wave of climate change-fueled atmospheric rivers closes in.
Why the city decided to shut down the emergency shelter today remains a mystery to many, as the city’s homeless campers may yet face worsening conditions. Federal estimates of flooding on Sunday night in particular surpass previous peaks, with a rise of over 20 feet in the San Lorenzo Basin.
In a press release from the city manager’s office, the city claims that the closure is “due to lack of necessary resources,” but does not specify those resources with any detail. The city manager’s office also does not reveal from where the resources came to open the shelter in the first place, although they do establish the shelter as a joint effort of the City and County both.
Nevertheless, for those two-and-a-half days shelter guests were fed, provided blankets, some were given tents, and told they could find rest and refuge inside. While the first to show up found a tent on the floor waiting for them, these filled quickly. After that, guests were simply allowed sleeping spots on the bare floor and amidst the ampitheater’s seating rows.
One guest, Danny arrived at 6pm on Wednesday after biking through blinding rain. Volunteers gave him a blanket and a towel for the shower, but also told him that the tent spots were already full. Thus, Danny slept in the stands for the first half of the night, until he managed to find a spot in a friend’s vacated tent a few hours later.
Many made beds in beween seating rows
"I was so grateful," he said. "I never knew they would open for stuff like this, like weather emergencies. I've seen it in Watsonville, but not here. I'm just really happy that the community wanted to help the homeless people and give them shelter."
Danny works nearby, but can’t afford housing. Sometimes, his work lets him stay in their back office, but he hesitates to take their help too often for fear of wearing it out. Even during “normal” times, the risks inherent to street living prevent him from sleeping well in a tent, outdoors.
"I believe the civic auditorium should be open 24/7, all year round. There's some of us that struggle at night like myself. I can't sleep because of the fear of getting my stuff stolen, or of someone coming into my tent. Santa Cruz should have something [like this], like a nightly thing where people can get some rest, because the streets are no joke."
Someone sleeps on the floor of the auditorium
As people packed their things and prepared to move to their next spot, most occupants spoke positively about their experience at the Civic Auditorium. Outside the entrance, comments such as "paradise is over" spoke to the occupants’ general desire for more spaces of the kind. Others, such as Jay and Alex, appreciated the little bit of support they received, but muted their approval.
"It was alright," claimed Jay, with a slight, warm smile visible on his face. "A few drunks, the usual things you’d see on the streets. They at least kept food for everyone, and had a decent bit of supplies."
Jay hails from Memphis originally, and he and Alex recently moved down from Ashland, Oregon to escape the ongoing wet and cold conditions there. They found shelter at a nearby parking garage for their first few nights until a woman woke them up to tell them about the Civic Auditorium. Together with their cat, Oti, they have been staying there since it opened.
"I barely sleep anywhere anyway, even when I have a nice bed to sleep in," Jay laughs, wrapping up his experience with understated approval. “She sleeps anywhere." He nods to his girlfriend Alex, who giggled.
Back outside, the couple wavers on where to head to next. Although the city provided everyone with a list of phone numbers to contact about different services, neither have a phone to call with. Reliable cell phones are notoriously hard to hold onto when homeless, as moves, theft, and harsh conditions all increase the risk of losing them. Once lost or broken, emergencies, missed appointments, and other roadblocks to progress pile up. Jay and Alex can’t even begin their search for their next possible spot through the city-recommended channels. For them, it’s likely to be another drafty parking garage or a hazardous flood zone such as Sycamore Grove or along the San Lorenzo levy.
Jay and Alex consider their next move
Though no one seemed pleased that the emergency shelter closed, many still express gratitude for the tents that the city gave out as they make plans to weather the storms on their own. One woman, Spider, describes feeling immensely relieved to arrive even though she only got to spend a single night the auditorium.
"I came here as soon as I heard," she said, lucky to have had somewhere to go after a surprise eviction from Housing Matters' pallet shelters. According to her, she missed a few days while visiting her family for her grandmother's funeral, and when she came back, she was told that she was no longer welcome there.
It was my first time ever getting off the street and getting inside," she claimed, "and [now] I'd rather be outside than inside."
Not long after being kicked out, she learned out about the Civic Auditorium emergency shelter. Though she didn’t stay long, she takes satisfaction in the supplies she managed to scrape together.
"They gave me everything I need to start a new camp now," she relays, confidently. Though the rain remains nowhere near to being done, she feels sure that she’ll can brave the next atmospheric system where she’s heading with the few new items she has.
"Highway Nine," she states determinedly, head set in that direction, and begins to carry her pack towards the recently flooded, still muddy foothills.
She won’t be going alone