Santa Cruz is on the brink of making what I believe to be the worst decision in its 148 years.
In response to the growing number of transients migrating into Santa Cruz and deciding to stay long term, several activists have brought to the table the idea of a transient tent city to be located within Santa Cruz.
The issue of transients is nothing new to the central coast. For almost 50 years this area has been known to be a stopping point for transients heading to Los Angeles or Portland. But, an increase in social services provided by government and non-government organizations and the lack of regulating these providers has created an environment ripe for long-term resident transients.
So, here we are in 2014 with the highest property and violent crime rate per capita for medium and large cities in California. Along with those statistics our transient population has exploded. The number of transients in the county was estimated to be just over 9,000 back in 2011. That’s over 3% of our population. Over 50% suffer from some form of mental illness and almost 40% experience drug/alcohol dependency. In the past several years our highest profile violent crimes, including several murders, were caused by transients and recent transplants.
I worked for the Human Services Department in Santa Cruz County for 5 years. I am well aware of the difference between homeless and transient. Having seen women with three children in tow after being tossed out of their home due to domestic violence is what I consider to be homelessness. But, hiking from another city or state to Santa Cruz to utilize our social services and then camping in our city to continue using our services is what resident transients do.
The idea being pitched to our city leaders comes from a group of local activists calling the project Santa Cruz Sanctuary Village. The organizers, several who were supporters of the anarchist movement that vandalized locally owned businesses downtown during the May Day riots in 2010 and the take over and vandalism of the vacant building at River and Water in 2011, have been meeting with city council members and are gaining momentum to make this homeless camp a reality.
Here’s what you should know:
CAMPS IN OTHER CITIES ARE NOT WORKING
Current camps in other cities, for example Portland, are not solving the transient or homeless problem. Activist will tell stories of transients going from the camps to stable housing and self sufficiency. But for the few successful cases they highlight there are many more that end up back on the street or in jail. Portland continues to find
illegal homeless camps years after their “Dignity Village” was built. The city is now discussing adding more camps to accommodate the rise in the transient population. Police in Olympia, WA are constantly finding and breaking down illegal campsites along their rivers after approving “Quixote Village”. Transients go to these cities only to find there is no room available since the camps can only handle a small fraction of the transient population. Transients in Portland have now taken to the water. In Portland over 40 boats at a harbor were found to be illegally occupied by over a hundred transients. The number of transients increase when services are more readily available and promoted. If you build it, they will come.
A FINANCIAL NIGHTMARE
Camps currently operating are having financial problems and have had to reach out to their host cities for funding to continue serving their residents. These organizations are quickly learning the difficulty in managing large scale housing. Some of these tent cities have gone through several phases of development costing cities hundreds of thousands of dollars that could have funded mental health and drug and alcohol programs. The developed tent cities now resemble full scale city blocks with running water, electricity and sewage.
Cities are now having to deal with inferior construction and safety hazards. A camp in the northwest was described by city officials as a public emergency. Along with the logistics of maintaining these tent cities comes the cost the host city is sometimes legally mandated to cover.
The camp Right 2 Dream Too in Oregon decided to move to a larger property and tried to force the city to pay over $800,000 for the transition through litigation. Once a camp is built the city can become liable for future development. Maybe the question to ask is if this is a “homeless camp” or just another low income housing complex built out of tents?
LOCATION. LOCATION. LOCATION.
Below are the proposed locations for this transient tent city.
Almost every single location is within Santa Cruz city limits or near downtown. Any real estate agent will tell you once this camp is built all of the local housing values near it will plummet. The same tax dollars collected to serve the homeless will be reduced by lost property value. Portland located their camp in the far Northeast part of town 1000 feet away from runway 10R at Portland International Airport not next door to their shopping district. Relocating these types of camps is nearly impossible and ends up in months of legal fighting. But even bringing up Portland is not valid. It’s unfair to compare Santa Cruz with cities that have large areas of land at their disposal. Any location is a bad location to place a transient camp in Santa Cruz.
CRIME AND SAFETY
There is absolutely no guarantee a transient tent city will reduce crime. If anything, with over 50% of transients having some sort of mental health issue, crime will be concentrated in the area of the camp. Local law enforcement will be frequenting a transient camp instead of patrolling parts of the city populated by tax paying residents. The horrific problem of littered hypodermic needle in our parks and beaches will continue and most likely increase around the camp area.
Santa Cruz needs to face the issue of resident transients in a logical and realistic manner. Creating a camp for just a handful of the 9,000 plus transients will not solve anything. The number of transients will continue to balloon and so will the financial burden. This camp will not reduce crime because it does nothing to decrease it.
The answer to reducing the transient population is to create an unwelcoming environment for transients by making Santa Cruz a clean and safe city for the people that live here making an effort to follow the law. Santa Cruz homeless should receive the best possible services to obtain temporary housing that is safe and clean. Local organizations should do whatever they can to get people back on their feet and into the workforce. Social services providing mental health care and medical care should be adequately funded so they may function properly and succeed. But at the same time all of these organizations need to be monitored and regulated and local service providers should give local residents priority over transients from other cities.
What we lost in the past few years was more than just loved ones and the charm of Santa Cruz. We lost respect. We are mockingly called “The Oakland of The Central Coast”. Criminals come here to do as they please because we refused to make the difficult decisions when the time was right. Our city leaders rarely step up and make bold moves. They create task forces to research ideas rather than making their own obvious and logical conclusions. Council members congregate and brainstorm with supporters of organizations that brought terror to our city less than five years ago. The residents of Santa Cruz and local business owners are losing faith. We need to be certain this ridiculous idea of building a tent city in Santa Cruz does not come to fruition. It will only add more problems to an already struggling city.
Below are city council member’s emails. You need to write them and let them know why this idea is horrible for Santa Cruz. The people in favor have already lobbied this plan and several city council members are moving towards approving it. It’s our responsibility to save our city’s dignity and make this the safe and clean home we deserve.
Mayor Lynn Robinson - email@example.com
Hilary Bryant - firstname.lastname@example.org
Pamela Comstock - email@example.com
Vice Mayor Don Lane - firstname.lastname@example.org
Cynthia Mathews - email@example.com
Micah Posner - firstname.lastname@example.org
David Terrazas - email@example.com
First District Supervisor John Leopold - firstname.lastname@example.org
Second District Supervisor Zach Friend - email@example.com
Third District Supervisor Neal Coonerty - firstname.lastname@example.org
Fourth District Supervisor Greg Caput - email@example.com
Fifth District Supervisor Bruce McPherson - firstname.lastname@example.org