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SANTA CRUZ — The former “Ross Camp” has reopened, once again unsanctioned by the city but this time with rules and an encircling chain-link fence. Activist Alicia Kuhl, president of the Santa Cruz Chapter of the California Homeless Union, said organizers were spurred to reclaim the site, fenced in and empty since its previous closure, after last month’s death of Deseire Quintero. Quintero, who was living in the Pogonip woods when a tree fell on her, lived at the former camp and was a member of a group of homeless people who sued the city in an effort to prevent the Ross Camp’s closure. Kuhl dubbed the new camp the “Ross Survival Camp.”
“It would have been better if the city had let us do this,” Kuhl said Monday afternoon, seated next to a box of donated apples inside the fenced area.The homeless encampment’s precursor began informally gaining size in November 2018, culminating in its May closure by city officials who cited health- and safety-related reasons for the removal of possessions of an estimated 200 people. The nearly 1-acre strip of vacant land wedged between the Gateway Shopping Center and Highway 1 is property partially owned by both the city and the county.
The camp will have no curfew, but will ask those staying to set up their tents in neat rows with 5-foot buffers between them, per fire code, Kuhl said.
In the space of an hour, several housed community members walking along the nearby Riverwalk path stopped by the unfolding site, looking to engage in conversation about the latest development. Local landlord Darius Mohsenin said he was disappointed to see the “flaunting of lawlessness in this town,” with organizers “thumbing their nose at the whole community.” He said if the program could be run by “the adults in the room,” with no drugs, thieving and nefarious activities, however, it could be a positive development for the city’s homeless population.
“I’d like to see a camp counsel with only one felon on the entire counsel,” Mohsenin said. “It needs to be like the Benchlands or River Street Camp, which are excellent examples of what could be accomplished with the right management.”
Signs posted outside the encampment entrance included a series of rules those wishing to stay must agree to in writing before entering, Kuhl said. A sampling of the camp’s rules includes: no violence to yourself or others, no theft, no alcohol/illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia on site or within a one-block radius, no constant disruptive behavior and 10 hours a week of volunteer camp maintenance and operations work.
Wearing a bright yellow Homeless Union T-shirt Monday, Brian “Panther” Funk Sr. will be one of the camp’s self-policing organizers. Funk, who said that he “has a problem with stupidity” and has been on parole for more than half of his 55 years, will fill the roles of a camp host and camp security. Choking up, Funk said that he could not believe when he heard that the camp had reopened this weekend.
“I finally got a good feeling in my heart right now,” Funk said. “For some people, this is their last chance. This is not camping. Camping is fun. This is for people that want to be safe and who can leave their tents open and unlocked.”
A list of people signing up to stay at the new Ross Survival Camp had about 25 names, with seven tents already erected, within two days of its launch, Kuhl said. As of Monday afternoon, organizers also were visited several times by Santa Cruz Police Department personnel — including Chief Andy Mills on Sunday, Kuhl said.
In an email widely circulated on Facebook and confirmed as legitimate by its author, Mills wrote that there “are currently no tools that we are aware of to deal effectively with the situation” after the city halted enforcing its no overnight public camping law in the wake of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision, Martin v. Boise. While police will continue to enforce other laws, the impetus for the former camp’s removal — public health hazards — does not exist and there is insufficient alternative shelter space to send people, he wrote.
According to a homeless census conducted in January, there were nearly 1,200 people experiencing homelessness in the city at the time, with about 865 people without shelter. Countywide, the unsheltered homeless population was counted at 1,700 people.
Prior to its closure, the city spent about $266,000 on three months of lightly managing and eventually tearing down the former Ross Camp, with $100,000 of the costs offset with a state emergency homeless grant, according to Santa Cruz city estimates. This city provided regular trash pickup, portable toilets and hand-washing stations, security and occasional site improvements this spring. Organizers plan to bring in two portable toilets and a handwashing station for the new camp, Kuhl said.