By executive order of Santa Cruz city manager Martín Bernal and Director of Parks & Recreation Tony Elliot, Santa Cruz police have begun evicting residents at the encampment in San Lorenzo park. The order cites a range of concerns including alleged vandalism, criminal activity, destruction of City grass, and improperly disposed litter, in building its case “to preserve the park grounds and facilities and to prevent exorbitant rehabilitation expenses from becoming necessary at San Lorenzo Park.”
The evictions, while putting City budgets above human lives, also go against all public stated guidelines that explicitly recommend against the dispersal of encampments due to concerns that evictions increase the risk of COVID exposure within the wider community. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) national guidelines for homeless encampments during the Covid-19 pandemic clearly state: “If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.”
Homeless Action Partnership (HAP)—a collaboration of Santa Cruz County and each city within Santa Cruz County—aligns with the CDC and CDPH [California Department of Public Health] recommendations “to not clear encampments unless individual housing units are available.” Instead, “if clients are asymptomatic, communities should continue providing outreach services (screening, food, hygiene) and ensure that recommended physical distancing is maintained where individuals experiencing homelessness are located, including encampments,” indicate HAP guidelines.
In a widely circulated social media message on Dec. 21, Santa Cruz County Health Officer Gail Newel was asked why the City is evicting people at San Lorenzo against CDC guidelines, when it’s clear that dispersing encampments leads to more spreading of COVID. She responded that “this was a decision of the City of Santa Cruz, independent of the County, for which I work. Public Health was not consulted about this. If we had been, we would have advised against this for the very reasons you cite.”
This sweep—part of a longstanding pattern of the City’s apparent “solution” to enforce permanent itinerancy in the houseless community—was announced on Friday, December 17, before a 2-week closure of all city offices. No one at the City Manager’s office or the Parks Department is currently taking calls.
Meanwhile, there is nowhere for evicted camp residents to go, and no City services offered. Shelters are full.
Lee Butler, Santa Cruz Director of Planning and Community Development, also serving as the city’s homelessness response manager, wrote on Dec. 21, 2020: “In all our efforts with this population of residents, we are working to balance compassion and care for the health and well-being of individuals experiencing homelessness with our responsibility to steward public resources and ensure the safety of all residents. Additionally, in a time of budget cuts and furloughs, significant City resources are being used to manage the voluminous trash, human waste and needles that are created by occupants of the unmanaged encampments. City staff no longer feel safe in the area and must operate in pairs. As park conditions continue to deteriorate during encampment occupancy, costs for restoration of the park grow. Our conclusion is that the only way to accomplish this balance is through a temporary park closure.”
Yet an inspection of the San Lorenzo encampment reveals a clean and orderly space, where camp residents and community members have collaborated to keep the camp clean and advocate with the city for better and more consistent trash pickup. Instead of supporting these efforts, the City has directed the police and City workers to begin removing all trash bins, porta potties, handwashing stations, and shower services—all in the midst of the pandemic and during the holiday season.
Meanwhile, in recent days Santa Cruz county has reached Tier 1, the most restrictive level, with ICU capacity in the county’s hospitals below 15% and the state closure of many nonessential businesses. Residents are asked to stay at home, and gatherings with members of other households prohibited. Over the past seven days, the county has reported an average of 149.6 new cases per day, a 180.7% increase from two weeks prior.
The City has chosen this time during the pandemic’s worst moment to disperse approximately 250 camp residents—without any place to go, without offering any plan, without any proposed health care or housing aid.
Santa Cruz police chief Andy Mills was on site on Dec. 21 during the beginning of the city’s eviction efforts when questioned by camp residents and allied community members. Asked where evicted residents are supposed to go, he explained: “I’m not sure—they’re going to have to figure that out.” (Martin vs. Boise also doesn’t apply, Mills noted, because “we don’t have camping laws on our books right now, so we’re not enforcing camping laws.”) He also suggested that “other parks” could be an option. “They can continue to keep spaced apart wherever they are,” he suggested.
Such is the extent of the City’s morally bankrupt and heartless thinking. Integral to the mission of the Santa Cruz police is to “serve our community with compassion” and “provide safety that improves the quality of life and wellness for all”—but eviction is violence. During a pandemic it is nothing less than an abuse of human rights.
The City’s non-solution of perpetual eviction brings only increasing hardship on unhoused people already surviving in precarious circumstances. In light of this situation, the City has chosen to make things only worse through their eviction orders, during the holidays when City council members are conveniently on vacation and away from their email. It's Christmas time and forcing 100+ people out of tents with no alternatives is not only patently against the spirit of the season, it constitutes a needless act of police-enforced cruelty. Those currently camping in San Lorenzo Park are already doing a good job of sheltering in place, social distancing and cluster camping.
Removing people from their personal domiciles during a raging pandemic not only goes against the City Council’s “Health in All Places” priority, it flies in the face of all sensible public health guidelines. The City should instead support the efforts of community organizers and the unsheltered Santa Cruz community, rather than making matters worse, throwing people onto the streets, and causing further harm to us all.
The city of Santa Cruz is currently evicting residents at an encampment in San Lorenzo park. Please call on city manager Martin Bernal to stop this eviction and give houseless people a space to shelter in place!
Santa Cruz City Council